I cautiously invoke the spirit of The Blair Witch Project to discuss The Last Exorcism, as taut and economical a horror film as I've seen in a long time. It opens Friday.
Blair Witch is one of those touchstone films that continues to polarize people, 11 years after it created a sensation at Sundance and beyond. Either you think it's an imaginative (and imaginatively marketed) horror film -- or you think it's an overhyped, jiggly-camera mess.
Certainly, Last Exorcism invites the comparison. Like Blair Witch, it's a fiction film shot as a documentary, with all the bumps and jolts that a handheld camera produces. Like Blair Witch, it deals with nonbelievers who confront increasingly spooky supernatural elements. They suddenly find themselves facing things they can't explain and which scare the crap out of them -- and the viewer.
In this case, the documentary crew is hanging with the Rev. Cotton Marcus (Patrick Fabian), a clean-cut ex-evangelist who has offered to debunk his own former practice of conducting exorcisms. As he explains, he finally couldn't bring himself to exploit the faithful, who are so easily suggestible, any longer and so he gave it up. In every case, he says, the person was not possessed by a demon but merely thought he was -- and Marcus was able to convince him that he'd been cleansed by putting him through the exorcism ritual.
How cynical is Cotton Marcus? At one point, he gets up to preach in his father's church for the cameras. But before he goes on, he tells the crew that, when people are in the spirit, he can say anything he wants -- including giving a recipe for banana bread -- and no one will even notice. And then he does it.
Marcus has offered to show the crew his version of an exorcism in order to debunk the whole idea; to do so, he randomly selects an envelope from the stack of requests he still receives. Then he and the crew go to the home of the sender: Louis Sweetzer, who is convinced that his daughter, Nell (Ashley Bell), is possessed by a demon.
Marcus talks to her, watches her and gets glimpses of what her father is talking about. On the other hand, he finds something off about the whole backwoods situation, particularly with Nell's brother, Caleb (Caleb Landry Jones), who seems unhappy to have Marcus and the film crew on hand.
When night falls, things get truly weird: Nell seems to vanish and reappear, to bend herself into impossible shapes and, at one point, to attack Caleb and slice open his face. Still, Marcus isn't quite convinced, believing that Nell's overly religious father has infused her with beliefs that have manifested themselves in this bizarre behavior.
Needless to say, something else is going on, though it would be unfair to reveal what. Suffice to say that The Last Exorcism works because director Daniel Stamm and writers Huck Botko and Andrew Gurland never try to explain too much -- they just bring on creepier and creepier moments that amplify the viewer's uneasiness as they build to a neatly rendered climax.
Fabian has the kind of clean-cut look that makes Cotton Marcus believable as both a real preacher and a fallen one. Bell has an otherworldly affect that adds a layer of spookiness to the character of Nell. Jones, as her brother, and Louis Herthum, as her father, complement her performance and play off each other in unexpected ways.
The Last Exorcism is a seasonal surprise -- a gripping little horror movie that will give you the willies without focusing on the gross or the graphic. A nice trick, if you can pull it off. This movie does.