“The Last Exorcism”
Theatrical release 8/27/10
Directed by Daniel Stamm
Article by Fister Roboto
The Last Exorcism is a mocumentary horror film that succeeds in strides, much like The Blair Witch Project. Sometimes the low-budget sleepers like this deliver far more than ever expected. This film is written, acted, and directed beautifully. While there may be a silly moment or two, it surely doesn’t detract from it’s main goal: to make you as nervous and anxious as possible.
Set in the deep south of New Orleans, TLE feels like it’s filmed in the backyard of Bon Temps itself. The Reverend Cotton Marcus (Patrick Fabian) is a Baton Rogue preacher who has profited more from his electric sermons than anything else. Cotton is the son of a preacher who had the financial sense to realize a child-preacher would fill the revival pews as well as the offering plates. At one point Cotton mentions his persuasive evangelical talents and makes a bet that he can even deliver a sermon based on baking banana bread since his parishioners are so enraptured in the feeling and the moment, and not his words – and he does.
Cotton admits that he’s performed hundreds of “exorcisms” over the years, and that if his clients feel better, either mentally, physically, or spiritually afterward – then he’s done his job. He hears of an autistic boy who dies during an exorcism gone wrong, and agrees to take part in a documentary designed to expose the outdated practice. Cotton can’t say for sure if he even believes in God, crediting science for his own disabled son’s improved health. When Cotton’s own child is asked whether his Dad believes in exorcisms or not, his son turns his head slowly from side to side and grins sheepishly before putting a finger to his lips to say “Shhhhh.” Cotton shows the film crew the massive amounts of exorcism requests he receives from his post office box and picks one at random. He chooses a request mailed in from Louis Sweetzer (Louis Hertham), who claims his daughter Nell (Ashley Bell) is possessed by a monstrous demon and he needs help asap.
Cotton goes to the farmhouse along with his film crew and meets the family. Some of the initial scenes with Nell are wonderful. Bell delivers a fresh-faced innocence along with her demonic problems, and her acting truly provides more to the film’s mocumentary nature. Before the exorcism can begin, Cotton rigs her bedroom with speakers, trip wires, and a host of other Hollywood tricks to maximize his performance of a powerful man of God. He casts the demon, Abalam, out of her body and only his payment remains. He tells Louis that they have cured Nell, and that, her life can return to normal.
Later in the night Nell mysteriously arrives at the motel where Cotton and the film crew are staying. She begins acting erratically, even kissing producer/director Iris Reisen (Iris Bahr) as she tries to comfort Nell. They rush Nell to the local hospital where they’re commanded to stop the filming. Cotton demands that comprehensive tests are performed, including a mental evaluation, while Louis makes his way there. The tests don’t find any medical issues with Nell and she’s released. The next morning, Cotton’s growing fears about Nell drives him to visit the Sweetzer’s former church, where they meet Pastor Manly. The pastor tells them it’s been some time since the Sweetzer family has been to church, but Nell was a well-adjusted, even radiant young girl then.
They travel back to Nell’s home and into a terrifying situation. Nell has sliced her bother, Caleb (Caleb Landry Jones) deeply across his face with a knife. Unable to talk, Caleb writes a note to Cotton that reads “Don’t leave her alone with him”. They agree to stay with Nell while Louis takes him to the hospital. They find Nell chained to her bed, presumably for attacking her brother, and release her. In the night the team is alerted to a disturbance, and hear the cries of an infant. They find Nell in the hallway and she rushes into the bathroom. Nell is bent over the bathtub, drowning what we think is a baby at first. It turns out to be a submerged doll. Nell comes out of her trance and they crew finds her drawing of a bloody cat.
Nell wakes up during the night and takes the crew’s camera, recording herself pulling and tearing at her distorted face. It’s scenes like this one that add some major creepiness to the film. You keep waiting for that first big possession moment, but the film is patient, choosing carefully what it will and will not show as it progresses. Nell continues to the barn, where she corners a cat and beats it to death. Covered with blood, Nell now holds to camera above the sleeping Cotton, I assume to beat him with it, until the crew finds her and wrestles her to the ground. They find more of Nell’s drawings depicting Cotton standing in front of a huge fire with his cross held in the air. The film crew is shown hacked into pieces and decapitated. The true sense of dread begins to fall upon the team.
Louis arrives back home and hears a voice mail from the hospital stating that Nell is pregnant. At this point we think Louis is guilty of incest and tempers flare. Louis insists this is another act of the demon inside her and that his perfect daughter is indeed a virgin. Cotton and Louis butt heads when Louis demands another exorcism, while Cotton tries to convince him that Nell needs medical attention. Louis demands that Cotton and the crew leave his property after he refuses to conduct another exorcism. The crew tries to decide whether they should just grab Nell and take her with them. They find Nell on top of a tall dresser upstairs where she stabs at Cotton with a knife, and then runs outside. Nell tackles Cotton and tries to further harm him. The fight continues inside when Louis points his shotgun at them. Worried that Louis means to kill Nell, they agree on another exorcism and stay.
During the exorcism the demon calling itself Abalam shows itself, and we see some of the films most disturbing images thus far. While on the ground, Nell contorts her head in impossible positions, causing everyone to gasp or scream in shock. Cotton confronts the demon and it agrees to release Nell if Cotton can shut up for ten seconds. The demon breaks three of Nell’s fingers while staring intently at Cotton. Cotton finally has enough and yells for her to stop. The demon offers to give cotton a “blowing job”, and Cotton realizes she isn’t possessed since she doesn’t even know what the actual act is called. Nell comes down from the “possession” and admits she had sex with a boy at a local coffee shop and that’s how she became pregnant. She tells them that she enjoyed it as well. Convinced that there is nothing more they can do for Louis or Nell, Cotton gets Louis to agree to have Pastor Manley out to ease the troubled situation.
As they leave town, Cotton and the film crew stop at the cafe where Nell claimed her lover works and they meant a fresh-faced kid that claims he only met Nell once, at a party at Pastor Manley’s home, 0nly speaking to her for a minute or two. They also realize the boy is gay and never really had any relationship with Nell. As they’re driving home they begin the details of the story. Pastor Manley said it had been years since he’d seen Nell, but the boy’s story convinces them to turn around and confront everyone involved.
When they arrive back at the farm both Nell and Louis are gone. Nell’s room is wrecked and the walls are adorned with satanic emblems. They see a huge fire outside and sneak closer to it. They see Nell on an altar with Pastor Manley’s secretary standing in a position that would imply Nell is going to deliver a child. They then realize that Louis is blindfolded and chained to a tree and that the cloaked figure is Pastor Manley. Horrified, they watch Nell give birth to something “not human” and Manley tosses it into the fire. The fire roars with a demonic presence. Cotton finds that he indeed does have faith and he holds his crucifix over his head and walks boldly towards the hooded group. The film crew flees to find help but are quickly butchered. The last scene shows Caleb raising a blade and decapitating the camera man. His body falls to the ground and drops the camera and we fade to black.
This film toys with the viewer several times, giving several false impressions that the face of evil is something less ominous than it really is. Just about the time you think you have it figured out, they pull the rug out from under you again. I’m always wary of horror movies using the word exorcism in the title since 99% of them are guaranteed failures and total wastes of time. While this film is certainly no The Exorcist or The Entity, it is a finely crafted entry into the genre, definitely worth adding to your Halloween season movie list.