The Last Exorcism, the Eli Roth produced independent horror film which made its Toronto debut at the After Dark film festival last night, is a gem in the rocky ground of recent American studio genre pictures. It’s a slow-building, character-based story filled with atmosphere, spookiness and actual dread. Building on the concept of a documentary team following a preacher on “one last exorcism”, it adds music and sound effects to increase tension to move towards an ending that is both unexpected and foreshadowed. If it didn’t quite go where I wanted it to after the halfway mark and even if it occasionally pulls you out of the movie by breaking its single camera rules, this is certainly one of the best of the American horrors released in the last few years.
Preacher Cotton Marcus is a charismatic man who has been preaching to the converted since he was a young boy. He has easy charm and an even easier smile that helps win his audience over while he sermonizes, prays, heals and exorcises. He’s quite charming and the viewing audience is also easily won over to him – particularly since he has invited the documentary crew on this final exorcism (chosen randomly from the stacks of requests he gets) to show everyone the falseness of the tactic and the tricks he has employed to convince people he has rid them of the devil. He still sees that he has done some good since these people still believe that he has helped them and manage to get on with their lives, but his own faith has been shaken due to events in his life and he simply can’t go through with the charades anymore. The film really allows us to spend a good chunk of time with Cotton and his family before they hit the road to a small Louisiana town to find poor possessed young Nell.
The film continues with its strengths here. Nell (Ashley Bell), her father (Louis Herthum), her brother (Caled Landry Jones) and Cotton (Patrick Fabian) are all given space to create real characters with motivations and personalities before things start to go all haywire. Cotton initially goes through with his regular schtick with Nell and as far as they can all see, everything works, everybody is happy and Cotton’s confession to the camera is done (the film is clever in how it shows his tricks of the trade). However, Cotton’s got more work ahead of him – both in relation to helping Nell as well as with his own confessions. That’s yet another strength of the film’s script as it lays out Cotton’s own story, his crisis of faith and a possible chance for him to regain it.
If I had one issue with the film it’s that it didn’t continue to do what it was doing best – provide spooky moments. Don’t get me wrong – it’s a fully satisfying film, but since it handled some early eerie scenes so well, I had really wanted more. They were there for sure, but since I’ve been a bit starved of that kind of quality spookiness of late, I was feeling greedy. In essence, my one complaint against the film is actually a compliment. Nell’s transformations, her sudden appearances in shadowed hallways and behind windows, and the variety of noises emanating from her room all meshed together to form an extremely unsettling experience. It was an interesting choice to add a soundtrack to the film as it then implies that the footage was constructed and edited together later on – which goes a bit against several scenes where we see the camera turn off and on – but it adds a great deal to the uneasiness the audience feels. Even the fact that there would have to have been two cameras filming several of these scenes can’t take away from the film (though it does pull you out for a few seconds when you notice it) since the filmmakers have gone to great lengths to create a story and characters you care about, so that you really feel the effects of what slowly happens around them. And that’s scary.