The Last Exorcism came in 2nd place but still grossed more than anticipated. As usual, young people hoping for big scares were the driving force behind the thriller's success but I, as an ordained minister, was more intrigued by what The Last Exorcism had to say — and show — about religion and faith ... although I love an intelligent horror movie too. My interest was largely, if not completely, satisfied.
The Reverend Cotton Marcus (played with impressive fervor by the photogenic Patrick Fabian) is a Protestant preacher renowned for his exorcist abilities. But, as Marcus confesses to a documentary camera crew in the film's opening minutes, he doesn't believe in demons or manifestations of supernatural evil. Rather, he has concluded that those claiming to be possessed are in need of psychiatric help, to which many of the fundamentalist Christians who call upon his services are opposed. Marcus has also witnessed the damage sometimes wrought by ministers in the process of casting out the Devil and his minions, including the death of a boy not much older than Marcus's own son.
It turns out that the good Reverend has hired the filmmakers to document what he intends to be his final "exorcism" in an effort to show the world once and for all that demonic possession is a hoax. Marcus responds to the invitation of a farmer in rural Louisiana who believes his teenage daughter, Nell (the superb Ashley Bell), is under the influence of an evil spirit. Armed with an encyclopedia of demonology, special effects-laden props, a Satanic sound mix and self-righteous swagger, the preacher and his companions gradually find themselves in over their heads.
The Last Exorcism is at its best when it poses as many practical as theological explanations behind Nell's presumed possession. Is the girl being victimized by her questionably-sane brother (Caleb Landry Jones)? Has she been raped and impregnated by her father (an excellent performance by Louis Herthum)? Or, is the ordinarily angelic-looking Nell simply a screwed-up teen, dramatically grieving the death of her mother two years before?
The movie loses some credibility whenever its characters fall victim to illogical behavior, as too many spook-fest protagonists have before. Instead of calling Child Protective Services and the police once they suspect Nell is the victim of sexual abuse or in the wake of her apparently slashing her brother across the face with a knife, Rev. Marcus and Company lock the girl in her room and wait for all concerned to simply sleep things off. Not even Nell's vicious, caught-on-video bludgeoning of the family pet (cat lovers, beware) is enough to wake them up to reality.
I can forgive The Last Exorcism all of this in light of its otherwise (mostly) intelligent handling of an enduringly fascinating subject. It is refreshing to see a non-Catholic approach to possession and exorcism; as Marcus himself notes of Catholics, "They've got the movie," referring of course to the 1973 classic, The Exorcist. Marcus also accurately states that every world religion has a method for expelling evil spirits, even as he remains unconvinced of the spiritual efficacy of such rituals.
It is harder to forgive the film's over-the-top, Blair Witch-y finale. I think it would have been much more resonant and disturbing to leave the question of exactly what the hell (no pun intended ... OK, sort of) is going on unresolved. Instead, we get everything but Rev. Marcus's exact fate graphically spelled out, although within the limits of a PG-13 rating, thankfully.
Still, The Last Exorcism is thought-provoking and intense. It even has a gay twist at one point, which I'm not about to give away. One should never underestimate alleged forces of evil, as the good minister and his companions learn the hard way. The film effectively proves the old adage: "When you dance with the Devil, you're sure to get burned."
Reverend's Rating: B
UPDATE: The Last Exorcism is now available on DVD and Blu-ray from Amazon.com.
Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and the Orange County and Long Beach Blade.