Christianity can be a scary, scary thing in Hollywood. Especially in the right, slightly-insane hands. But when it’s watered down and teen-friendly, it’s can be about as frightening as communion. You know you’re not drinking the Lord’s blood or eating his bod, but you go along with it anyway, hoping that you’ll get rewarded in the end. You could say the same for Hollywood’s latest crucifix-filled creep-fest, The Last Exorcism.
Although the finale will have you praying for a armrest buddy (or two), the majority of The Last Exorcism is too slow to make you even think of burying your face in your summer cardigan. In fact, you’ll probably laugh more than you’ll scream. Like when the film’s protagonist, preacher Cotton Marcus (Patrick Fabian, or as you probably know him, Professor Lasky from Saved by the Bell: The College Years!), convinces a congregation to praise the deliciousness of banana bread. This random hilarity isn’t unwelcome, it’s just surprising, especially considering what we’ve come to expect from films dealing with demonic possession.
Like that other exorcism movie (I ain’t talkin’ Emily Rose – although there’s also definite similarities there), the film follows a faith-less church leader (Cotton) as he attempts to tame the spiteful spirit that has taken over the body of a teenage girl. Taking Linda Blair’s spot is Ashley Bell, who plays Nell, a seemingly sweet, but secretly Satanic, country gal, who helps her dad (Louis Herthum) and brother (Caleb Landry Jones) on the farm by day, and kills livestock by night. Cotton hears about Nell through a strongly worded letter from her father, which he picks out of a pile of pray-filled packages. This random selection, he says, will be his “last exorcism” and will be documented by a two-person TV crew.
While the story sounds like The Exorcism for the Paranormal Activity generation, it’s actually a lot more interesting. At least from a thematic standpoint. Unlike the so-called classic, The Last Exorcism is not fully focused on Nell’s ungodly behaviour. It’s actually more about Cotton (in fact, the original title was just his name) and his personal quest for belief.
After years of successfully faking exorcisms (with the help of some invisible wire, smoke machines and Halloween soundtrack sounds), Cotton has become disillusioned, pondering the validity of Satan, and in turn, God. He’s gotten to the point where he doesn’t even read the letters sent out to him before he heads on a job (You can bet he’ll regret that one…). But as the film goes on, and Nell fails to recover from the normal treatment – a whole lot of praising, holy water and chanting – he starts to reassess his religion. It’s a fascinating journey, especially with Fabian at the helm. He’s the perfect pastor – charismatic as hell (pardon the puritanical pun), even when he starts shaking in his three-piece suit.
Bell also does a great job as Nell, moving back and forth between the low-key, perfectly pure daughter and the over-the-top, epically evil demon vessel. She doesn’t need any garish, ghoul make-up or bright green bile to prove that she’s gone to the dark side. It’s all in her mannerisms and vocal inflections. Bell did all her stunts, including bending her back way further than it should go. At least for humans.
Unfortunately, Bell’s acrobatics are the only really irksome aspect of The Last Exorcism. Although it’s being advertised as an Eli Roth (Hostel, Cabin Fever) film, he’s just a producer. (Sorry, gore whores.) There’s little to no blood shed here, save for a fairly brutal scene involving a house cat. In fact, we see more plasma in a few children’s drawings than we do in the real scenes, which in some ways is even creepier. Just not quite creepy enough. B-