Devil in a Blue Dress
Is she possessed or just depressed?
by Jason Blair
THE LAST EXORCISM: Directed by Daniel Stamm. Written by Huck Botko and Andrew Gurland. Cinematography, Zoltan Honti. Music, Nathan Barr. Starring Patrick Fabian, Ashley Bell, Iris Bahr and Louis Herthum. Lionsgate, 2010. R. 91 minutes.
The Last Exorcism, which bills itself as a horror film, is something closer to a farce. The film is 80 minutes of inspiration and 10 minutes of pure nonsense, or the equivalent to letting go of the wheel as you’ve reached your destination. Well-formed stories, particularly in the low-rent horror arena, don’t come along every day, and The Last Exorcism begins with a real burner: The Reverend Cotton Marcus (Patrick Fabian) vows to expose the practice of exorcisms as bogus after a boy dies during an exorcism rite. (The boy dies not from the devil, but the priest overplaying his act.) To accomplish this, Cotton accepts an invitation to perform an exorcism at a rural farm, bringing cameras along with him. With a smirk and sense of purpose, Cotton and crew set out for the farm.
At first, The Last Exorcism is a fresh take on demonic possession, a genre recently invigorated by Paranormal Activity. Exorcism is presented documentary style, and the interviews have an easy, carefree feel, largely due to the clownish disposition of Cotton, who enhances his sermons with card tricks and other effects. Cotton is a showman, a relaxed and confident entertainer, and the slow build of Exorcism gives you plenty to think about as you steel yourself for the trials facing Cotton at the farm. A Woody Harrelson lookalike, Patrick Fabian gives Cotton an indestructible air, just the kind of persona that might stand a chance against, say, a writhing demon from hell. His Cotton is almost too casual, too confident. He’s practically singing as he arrives at the farm.
The farm is owned by a crumpled wreck named Louis Sweetzer (Louis Herthum), a man who recently lost his wife and appears to be losing his daughter. Nell Sweetzer (Ashley Bell), the beatific daughter, has been roaming their barn at night while tending to the animals — cutting them in half, for example, or pulverizing them to bits. Farmer Louis wants an exorcism, and Cotton is all too happy to deliver the usual program, replete with smoke-spewing crosses, hidden speakers and other theatrical props. For a few hours, it seems to work. Cotton retires to a local motel, fatigued but triumphant. A short while later, Nell appears in his motel room, looking very, very put out.
To this point, Exorcism is a taut, clever mockumentary about a man who tries to reform himself too late. It’s like Blair Witch Project crossed with Se7en: How much is it going to take for Cotton to accept that Nell might not be herself anymore? When Nell attacks her brother Caleb (Caleb Landry Jones), Cotton suspects she’s the victim of more terrestrial infiltrations, a theory Exorcism substantiates one minute, only to disprove it the next. The film becomes more and more oblique, by which I mean flabby and indecisive, zigging and sagging as it reaches a conclusion, at which point — logically, dramatically — it goes directly over a cliff. I won’t spoil what’s already pure garbage, but think Rosemary’s Baby if it screened on Nickelodeon, and you have a good idea of the narrative power of Exorcism’s conclusion. It’s hard to recall experiencing such confusion and frustration at a decent film’s inability to conclude itself properly. The Last Exorcism is a great example of how to unmake a great film.