THE BEST movies about demonic possession have always tried to ground themselves in a certain kind of realism. The Exorcist cast real-life doctors and priests as fictitious doctors and priests, while The Exorcism of Emily Rose was loosely inspired by a real-life court case.
So it was probably inevitable that someone would make a movie like The Last Exorcism, using the same pseudo-documentary techniques that have made films like Cloverfield, Paranormal Activity and The Blair Witch Project so down-to-earth despite their otherworldly premises.
But The Last Exorcism doesn’t just ape documentary techniques; in its opening scenes, it even seems to pay homage to an actual documentary, namely Marjoe, an Oscar-winning 1972 film about a former child evangelist who, as an adult, lost his faith, but kept on preaching because it was the easiest way he knew to make money.
Eventually, Marjoe felt bad enough about what he was doing that he invited a film crew to tag along and help him expose the inner workings of the revival circuit.
Likewise, The Last Exorcism revolves around Cotton Marcus (Patrick Fabian), a former child evangelist who now fakes exorcisms for a living because, well, his family does need the money, and he seems to be helping people psychologically even if they aren’t really possessed.
But now Cotton is troubled — not only about his dishonesty, but also by the stories he hears about people who have been killed during botched exorcisms. Rather than go on contributing to anyone’s belief in the supernatural, Cotton invites a couple of filmmakers to join him for one last exorcism, during which he will show them all the tricks of the trade.
Needless to say, this one last job turns out to be a lot more serious than Cotton expected — and along the way, the lives of several people are threatened, while Cotton faces the possibility that the supernatural may be far more real than he had assumed.
Credit has to go to the actors for creating characters who are believable, entertaining and multi-faceted. As played by Fabian, Cotton is a con man who can’t help being a little smug at times; but he is also capable of genuine empathy when the situation calls for it.
Ashley Bell is also fantastic, as the bubbly teenaged girl whose sudden bursts of violence may or may not indicate that she has a demon. One scene, of Bell smiling at the camera just as a door closes between them, may be one of the more unnerving shots I’ve seen this year, precisely because it’s impossible to tell if the smile is basically innocent or tinged with menace.
Alas, the movie isn’t all that scary — at times, it even plays like a comedy — and it is also somewhat incoherent, both formally and theologically.
Sometimes it plays like a finished documentary, with clever cross-cutting between Cotton’s preparation for the exorcism and the actual exorcism itself; at other times, it plays like raw unedited footage.
More significantly, the story pretty much falls apart in the final ten minutes or so, as it turns into a strange pastiche of Rosemary’s Baby, The Wicker Man and who knows what else.
Perhaps the filmmakers didn’t really know what to do with their premise. Unlike The Exorcist and The Exorcism of Emily Rose, which were written by people who believed in the supernatural and had something to say about it, The Last Exorcism was produced by Eli Roth. He is a movie junkie who, according to some critics, pioneered the so-called “torture porn” genre — and who may not have all that much invested in the supernatural reality that these stories point to.
In its own way, the film suggests that “realism” may not be enough when you’re making a movie on this subject. It helps to have at least one foot in “reality,” as well.
— A version of this article was first published in BC Christian News.