Silver Screen: The Last Exorcism ***
Speaking of Eli Roth, when the writer-director isn't presiding over doomed wet T-shirt contests for Alexadre Aja, he's also producing movies-- most recently the faux documentary The Last Exorcism. And while Roth-written and-directed movies usually convey a message about as subtly as a big foam finger, this creepy, small-scale flick he midwifed for director Daniel Stamm is surprisingly layered and thoughtful.
Patrick Fabian (Big Love, Veronica Mars) does impressive work as Cotton Marcus, a true Southern preacher operating out of Baton Rouge. Spreading the word of God is for him a family tradition, having been trained since childhood by his minister father. He's been preaching for so long, Marcus confesses to the camera, that he never really stopped to consider if he believed what he was saying.
Marcus is a man of crumbling faith. He has seen behind the curtain for too long to take any of his Biblical teaching literally, and following a medical crisis with his young son, he contemplates leaving the flock entirely.
One of Marcus's regular duties is exorcism. It's a ritual he's come to abhor, which is the catalyst for the movie's documentary guise. A camera crew will follow Marcus as he chooses a random letter from his stack of requests, then performs an exorcism, all to prove that the ritual is a sham with, at best, the potential positive effects of a placebo.
Marcus, his cameraman, and the director (Iris Bahr) venture out of Baton Rouge and into rural Louisiana to the Sweetzer farm, where widower Louis Sweetzer (Louis Herthum) is struggling to raise his teenage children Caleb (Caleb Landry Jones) and Nell (Ashley Bell). The death of his wife has amped up Louis's fundamentalist beliefs and driven him to tighten the reins on his children, who he home schools and ministers himself. But all that worrying and praying hasn't saved his daughter from being overtaken by a demon, which semi-nightly causes her to slaughter his livestock.
Marcus thinks it's simple psychological trauma brought on by grief and isolation, and he sets out to prove it privately even as he goes through the motions of the exorcism. But as the situation spins out of control, the skeptical pastor is forced to try to separate possible paranormal activity (wink wink) from an even darker set of Sweetzer family secrets.
The Last Exorcism is very much in the mold of The Blair Witch Project, not just in format but in structure. Like Blair Witch, it features an early montage of townsfolk talking about the various legends and rumors about evil in the surrounding forest. Unlike Blair Witch, however, The Last Exorcism also uses this time to develop the characters-- and with much success.
Marcus could easily have become a caricature of a slick Southern evangelist, all snake oil and brimstone, but Stamm and his writers take a much more sympathetic approach. Though viewers later discover that he employs more thorough deception than the card tricks he uses to wow his dedicated congregation, viewers are never led to believe that Marcus is in the game for personal gain. Even though he no longer believes in the rituals and dogma, he does believe they can comfort the needy. He's wary and jaded, but not selfish.
This being a horror movie, it's fairly inevitable which direction the scales will tip, yet Stamm impressively maintains ambiguity right up until the end-- and the conclusion isn't as obvious as it might seem.
The film's greatest shortcoming is its inability to pull off the faux-documentary gimmick. Screenwriters Huck Botko and Andrew Gurland have made a career out of movies about movies-- their Mail Order Bride is about a documentarian providing funds for another man to purchase a wife, with the caveat that he gets to film the whole experience, and their next movie will follow a group of guys who decide to tape their buddy losing his virginity-- but their Last Exorcism script fails to provide the proper verisimilitude; if this is some kind of found footage, viewers need to know how and where it was found. Worse, Stamm, especially in the final act, all but abandons the notion that the action is being captured by a single camera, and the editing is suspiciously polished.
Still, The Last Exorcism finds more depth in the fake documentary ruse than predecessors like Blair Witch and Paranormal Activity. It earns all the plentiful scares it delivers, and, perhaps more importantly, it delivers more than that.