Only two types of horror movie have ever scared me—exorcisms and house-hauntings. More specifically, The Exorcist and The Amityville Horror crept deep into my mind as I watched them, digging out little niches where they could jump out as I laid in bed at night, making everything, from the shadow of a chair to the creaking of settling floorboards, completely shit-your-pants horrifying. There isn’t anything especially gory or shocking in either film, at least by today’s standards; it’s the scenario—the notion of something unearthly and entirely uncontrollable entering our lives and corrupting our homes and selves—that makes these movies so scary. So it was with great reluctance that I walked into Daniel Stamm’s The Last Exorcism, a film that walks the line between possession drama and horror mockumentary. Its PG-13 schlock begs to be pushed into R territory—is restrained by Nell’s (Ashley Bell) saccharine personality and an utter lack of anything frightening beyond the occasional boom mic malfunction.
Cotton Marcus (Patrick Fabian) is a Southern minister facing doubts over the legitimacy of exorcism and Christianity itself; after years of performing exorcisms reliant on parlor tricks and hidden speakers, he’s forced to question his practice once stories spread of a young boy’s suffocation at the hands of his exorcising minister. Hoping to save the lives of countless children from evangelical families, he invites a documentary crew to film his final exorcism for widespread theatrical release. As Marcus and his crew draw closer to the supposedly possessed Sweetzer farm, they collect folklore from the locals about cults, UFO landings, and cattle slayings. Upon arriving they’re met by Louis (Louis Herthum), father of Caleb, a young boy with a penchant for throwing muddy rocks, and Nell, the demonic focus of the film. From here it’s a simple matter of Marcus busting out his Batman-esque Holy Gadgetry, from bed hydraulics to smoking cross, to convince Louis that his daughter has been purified. But when Nell shows up in Marcus’s hotel room the night after her exorcism, catatonic and despondent, the minister realizes he may have bit off more than he can chew.
The Last Exorcism takes every generic twist you can imagine; there’s the immediate referral to psychiatry, implied family trauma, faux healing, and even a little antichrist sacrificing tossed in for good measure. It’s a by-the-numbers possession sleeper with more laughs than jumps—though Ashley Bell contorts into some pretty interesting positions, she can’t twist her face into anything approaching the level of horror achieved by Caleb throwing a few rocks at Marcus’s SUV. She has too much fun playing the host of an ancient demon—constantly looks like she’s in on some joke, as if the film was going to eventually commit to its mockumentary roots and outwardly reveal the tortured girl schtick as nothing but piss-poor acting. This combined with the minister’s constant sarcasm and religious self-reproach make for a pretty hilarious film. The final scene takes on a particularly Blair Witch vibe, but reveals too little and relies too much on implication than fear. I suppose the Exorcism subgenre is by its nature reliant on implication—depends on fear of the unseen and uncontrollable to play with its audiences’ emotions—but with this film you never see a corpse or anything close to a possession. Instead you’re treated to some bad kids’ drawings, a doe-eyed girl trying really hard not to laugh at herself, and one of the corniest, predictable endings in recent Horror cinema. It’s not an awful film—you’ll laugh a lot and walk away happy. Just don’t expect to be frightened.