Owen Gleiberman
August 27, 2010 AT 04:00 AM EDT

Any movie with the word exorcism in the title is inviting you to compare it to a movie that a great many people consider the scariest horror film ever made. That’s a hook, commercially — but it also raises the bar for shivers mercilessly high. The image of Linda Blair as a leering, ranting, head-swiveling harpy demon-child in The Exorcist (1973) struck an unholy fear even in those who thought that they didn’t believe in the devil. The movie was a blasphemous nightmare for a jaded, skeptical time; it shocked the secularity right out of you. So let’s say this much for The Last Exorcism (PG-13, 90 mins.), a low-budget fake-documentary horror film that tries to raise a little hell in the jittery-cam this is really happening! spirit of Paranormal Activity and The Blair Witch Project: It’s nothing if not clever about toying with your expectations.

The central character is a charismatic Southern yuppie preacher named Cotton Marcus (Patrick Fabian) who’s a self-confessed fraud. The basic conceit is that he’s allowing a documentary to be made about him. He plans to leave his career of fire-and-brimstone baloney behind him by taking a film crew along on one of his sham exorcisms — spooky, rigged rites of devil conjuring that he stages in the homes of deluded rednecks who believe that they have a ”possessed” family member in their midst. (The rituals work, explains Cotton, through the power of suggestion.) For his final bogus exorcism, Cotton visits the home of Louis (Louis Herthum), an ignorant, alcoholic farmer who thinks that his 16-year-old daughter, Nell (Ashley Bell), has got the devil inside her. His animals keep showing up slaughtered, and Nell, with the beatific smile and avid eyes of someone who could be a Sunday-school valedictorian or a Manson girl (or maybe both at once), is just ambiguous enough to fascinate us. When Cotton performs his initial exorcism, with fake devil sounds and a crucifix that shoots out smoke, the joke is that all his tricks come right out of The Exorcist. The Last Exorcism, of course, is just setting us up for something even more gothic and yucky. The devil, we sense, doesn’t favor reruns.

Yet Hollywood has been rerunning the devil-as-star-attraction act for more than 40 years now. The movies that feature demonic possession may not all be rip-offs, but almost all of them are, in effect, sequels — attempts to repackage the shock and awe that first enthralled audiences in The Exorcist and, before that, in the brilliantly disquieting Rosemary’s Baby (1968). The link between those two films isn’t nearly as acknowledged as it should be. They may be different in tone, but it was Rosemary’s Baby, based on Ira Levin’s novel about an innocent newlywed impregnated by Satan, that first seized audiences with the message: The devil is here — really here — in the world. Five years later, The Exorcist, in its far more explicit, pea-soup-in-your-face way, extended that sense of middle-class apocalypse. You could almost say that Mia Farrow’s Rosemary gave birth to the devil, who grew up into a bratty teenage girl named Regan in The Exorcist, and that her spirit flowed into the owlish Damien of The Omen (1976). In a funny supernatural way, he stood in for the yet-to-be-named Generation X with its scarily, if not demonically, detached new spirit. Lately, that old devil fever has been making a comeback: in the trashy 2005 hit The Exorcism of Emily Rose, in last year’s ingenious Paranormal Activity, and now in The Last Exorcism. So what, if anything, are these movies trying to tell us?

It all depends on the era. In Rosemary’s Baby, the devil emerged out of a late-’60s disarray, horning his way in between a lying husband and an innocent wife as the nuclear family itself began to implode. In The Exorcist, made several years after the feminist revolution kicked into gear, the devil expressed our primal fear of a newly empowered, newly furious, and newly sexualized generation of young girls, the first that seemed to be channeling wanton forces far beyond their control. And what’s the current wave of cinematic possession about? The Last Exorcism, like The Exorcism of Emily Rose before it, is a nightmare vision of the rise of Christian fundamentalism. It’s about the dark side of piety — the cultish wrath that can emerge out of the high and mighty. The film shrewdly exploits our voyeurism, yet its payoff isn’t scary enough; it’s like The Exorcist without a spine-tingling catharsis. Still, it leaves you with creepy images of a newly severe Bible-thumping underground America. That’s the thing about the devil in movies: He’s really just a mirror. The Last Exorcism: B

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