It’s getting to the point where the found footage format is no longer a gimmick or even a unique technique so much as an established horror sub-genre. The format has existed for a while but it came to prominence in the form of The Blair Witch Project and has become especially prevalent now through films like Cloverfield, [Rec], and Paranormal Activity. These are horror films that are shot in a documentary style but differ from mere mockumentary in that the footage was presumably found after the demise of those who filmed it. This one was made by a relatively unknown filmmaker but was produced by the torture-porn maestro Eli Roth. When it was released it received surprisingly good reviews but was widely panned for its ending, a spoiler I carefully avoided until I could catch up with the movie on DVD.
The film poses as a documentary following Cotton Marcus (Patrick Fabian), a young evangelical preacher in Louisiana who has been performing exorcisms for a while. Marcus has never really believed that he was curing actual possessions and has been using props and sound effects to put on a show of exorcisms all these years. Recently though he’s begun to question the ethics of these fraudulent exorcisms and has decided to use this documentary as a platform to reveal the tricks of the trade. He chooses a random letter from his pile of exorcism requests, and decides this will be the one for the movie. This brings them out to a secluded farm on the bayou where a religiously fanatical farmer (Louis Herthum) believes that his daughter (Ashley Bell) has been possessed. The fake exorcism works out as expected, but it becomes clear that there’s a little more going on with this case than they expected.
The mockumentary aspect of the film is mostly innocuous, it doesn’t really add much to the film’s atmosphere or add the kind of “this really happened” feeling that often accompanies these movies, but it also isn’t too much of a distraction either. The movie itself is a fairly run of the mill take on exorcisms; there isn’t a lot here that you haven’t seen before. The possession at the center isn’t too different than the one in The Exorcist except that this possession never becomes overtly supernatural. The film maintains the question of whether or not the daughter is really possessed through most of its running time and you won’t see Ashley Bell rotate her head 360 degrees or anything of that sort. That said, Ashley Bell’s performance does provide most of the film’s best moments and is able to contort her body in genuinely creepy ways when the script calls for it. Otherwise this is a pretty standard, if well made, horror movie that has a handful of decent jump-scares.
However, the film completely and unquestionably goes off the rails in its final five minutes or so. I’d been warned that the film had a bad twist ending before I began watching, but I still wasn’t quite prepared for the sheer stupidity that would occur in this film’s finale. This is an ending that’s completely at odds with the tone of what came before and it also completely undercuts the themes of religious ambiguity that the film had carefully stayed on the right side of until this ending. That the ending seems to have been added for absolutely no reason other than shock value is the worst part. I’ll admit I was genuinely surprised by it, but only because there was no good reason to expect something that dumb.
I’ve never been one to completely fail a movie for one scene and this isn’t necessarily an exception. Had The Last Exorcism wowed me in a grander way up until its unfortunate conclusion I probably would have been more forgiving. As it is, the film is a movie that managed to move itself from being passable to being a failure.
**1/2 out of Four