Review: "The Last Exorcism"

"The Last Exorcism" keeps you guessing.

At first, it seems to be a documentary that blurs the lines, partly reminiscent of 1972's Oscar-winning documentary feature "Marjoe," which featured a tent evangelist revealing the secrets of his fraudulent ministry.

Like "Marjoe," the main character of "The Last Exorcism" - Louisiana evangelist Cotton Marcus - enlists the help of a documentary film crew to expose his tricks. He says this will be his last derring-do against demons, hence the movie's title. Going through a stash of pleading-for-help letters, he picks one dealing with a rural teenage girl whose father thinks she is possessed and is slaughtering the livestock at night.

So Cotton and the film crew climb into an SUV and head for the sticks.

The first 30 minutes walk a fine line. Will director Daniel Stamm be making fun of religious people who sincerely believe in the devil? Is Cotton being repentant for his sins and using the documentary as a confessional tool? Isn't it odd that Cotton, played by Patrick Fabian, is forsaking his ministry and assuming the role of social scientist?

Cotton shows us his gadgets: a crucifix that's rigged to emit smoke; a recording device that will emit demonic sounds when he presses a button hidden under his sleeve. And it eventually becomes clear that we're not watching a documentary but participating in a fictional look at fundamentalism.

It almost seems smug. And we all know that the smug are prone to getting smacked.

All of this becomes even more disturbing after the movie introduces us to the supposedly possessed girl, Nell Sweetzer, played with startling realism by Ashley Bell, who manages to twist and turn like a demon with no computer-generated special effects.

Then the movie itself takes a twist. Are we dealing with a situation of child abuse rather than possession? Or are we really witnessing a teen who has a demon in her?

Cotton doesn't know. He stumbles, he rationalizes, he tries to apply logic while simultaneously making unfounded assumptions. And as the movie changes course, we see Cotton and the camera crew becoming much more uneasy. Shouldn't they just get out of there and leave the family alone?

"The Last Exorcism" creates an uncomfortable world for the viewer, mainly because it puts us behind the camera. We see only what the camera sees, and we have only Cotton and his crew to interpret the events.

Yet the camera, like Cotton, is far from a reliable narrator. Because of cinematic conventions, we want to identify with Cotton and his crew, but it's not at all clear that they really know what they're doing or where they're headed.

That's the engine for suspense, and it's what makes "The Last Exorcism" effective.

"The Last Exorcism"

Our grade: 3 stars (out of 5)

Genres: Horror, Thriller

Running Time: 90 min

MPAA rating: PG-13

Release Date: Aug 27, 2010