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, pea-soup-spewing 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, 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 Sweetzer (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 movie, of course, is just setting us up for something even more gothic and yucky. The Last Exorcism is structured to be Cotton’s comeuppance (the first scare is the jolting sound of Nell’s surly teenage brother pelting Cotton’s car with mudballs). From the moment he approaches the Sweetzer farm, we’re waiting for this flimflam savior, who thinks that the devil is as fake as he is, to learn that Satan is not so fake after all.
So what does the devil look like in The Last Exorcism? I’d be the Antichrist if I spoiled it, but I will say that the movie, directed by Daniel Stamm from a script by Huck Botko and Andrew Gurland, with Eli Roth serving as producer, 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 the mighty. At the center of it all, once again, is a teenage girl’s gnashing madness. The original Exorcist came out a few years after the feminist revolution kicked into gear, and Linda Blair’s she-devil expressed our primal fear of a newly furious, newly empowered, and newly sexualized generation of young girls, the first that seemed to be channeling wanton forces far beyond their control. The best thing in The Last Exorcism is Ashley Bell’s performance: She knows how to make rage the flip side of innocence. Especially when the camera follows her into the barn, and we see how those animals really died.
The Last Exorcism is a movie that operates by stringing us along, feeding off our anticipation. For a while, the movie shrewdly exploits our voyeurism, all built around the teasing question of whether there’s actually anything supernatural going on. The payoff, however, simply isn’t scary enough. The movie is like The Exorcist without a spine-tingling catharsis. Still, it does leave 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. B