A troubled evangelical minister agrees to let his last exorcism be filmed by a documentary crew.
This slightly tongue-in-cheek horror takes us modern cynics at our word, and presents us with an exorcist who no more believes in demons than Richard Dawkins believes in deities. In deepest Louisiana, we meet the Reverend Cotton Marcus (Patrick Fabian) – a genial fraud who charms believers as thoroughly as he cons them. It’s not that he’s lost faith in what he does; he simply never believed to begin with. Imagine, if you can, a handsome American version of our beloved Jeremy Kyle, working his magical bullshit on unsuspecting Deep South hicks. You get the drift.
Shot the now voguish style of the cod documentary (the codumentary? Perhaps not…), a cameraman and TV producer follow Cotton about his daily life, where he coasts charismatically through his quasi-evangelical church career, and introduces us to his wholesome family. He has volunteered to be filmed in order to expose exorcisms for what they really are: a piece a dramatic showmanship engineered to soothe the superstitious.
To show the fakery that goes into an exorcism, Cotton takes his crew out to a distant farm, where a middle-aged widower has begun to suspect that his daughter Nell (Ashley Bell) is possessed by demons. A fearsomely dead-eyed young redneck tries to dissuade them from reaching their destination, and thus the stage is set for the typical backwoods Southern Gothic horror.
The film avoids getting bogged down by the triteness of the clichés attendant to this sub-genre of spookiness by maintaining a jokey façade. Cotton is an imperturbable fellow and he gets on with the business of exorcising the sweet, sheltered daughter without too much bother, whilst treating the audience to plenty of humorous asides. The scene showing us the ‘exorcism’ itself is both tense and hilarious, as the audience is given glimpses of cheeky side edits featuring Cotton gleefully revealing his duplicitous methods – a smoking cross here, a few recorded ‘demon wails’ there. It’s an enjoyable swipe at the mechanics of the horror genre, as well as the supposed gullibility of those who believe in ghosts.
Things take a creepier turn when it becomes clear that things have not gone quite to plan, and Nell becomes increasingly deranged. For a rationalist like Cotton, it seems that there are no demons disturbing Nell, but something far more squalid and rooted in family life. By the final third of the film, however, we are firmly back within horror territory, complete with (not very eerie) foretellings of what is to come, uncanny gazes and some spectacularly realistic and gruesome contortions.
Unfortunately, whilst this section is gripping and creepy, the film’s climax is relatively damp squib. In fact, the ending is so rushed, so predictable and so mired in narrative fuzziness that it almost cancelled out my general goodwill for The Last Exorcism. Still, the bulk of the film was enjoyable and afforded a few frights and a few laughs, so I am willing to overlook the shoddy finale and the general aura of a post-Paranormal Activity cash-in, and say that it’s a respectable addition to its – admittedly slightly shopworn – sub-genre.