The 'Last Exorcism,' We Hope
Glenn Kenny, Special to MSN Movies
The Catholic Church, evangelical preacher Cotton Marcus explains at the beginning of this mercifully brief tale, "gets all the press" concerning the ancient ritual of exorcism, "because they got the movie!" That movie, of course, being William Friedkin's 1972 adaptation of William Peter Blatty's best-selling novel "The Exorcist," a shock- and frightfest that, for better or worse, managed to set the bar for such movies pretty much the first time out. "The Last Exorcism" likely will not be the final motion picture made about the subject (although given the cynical murmurs from various grouchy members of the press prior to the press screening MSN Movies attended, that would seem a consummation devoutly to be wished in certain sectors of the chattering class), but despite the ambitions implied by its title, not only does this picture leave that aforementioned bar completely intact, it doesn't even come within swiping distance of it.
Which is a little bit surprising, at least at first. "The Last Exorcism" comes to audiences with the imprimatur of Eli Roth, the horror director whose "Hostel" films have proved his power to appall decent middle-class sensibilities, if nothing else. And as the depredations experienced by the lead character of Friedkin's film, so artfully and explicitly depicted by that film's director, demonstrate, no supernatural creature is so capable of appalling (not to mention hypnotizing) decent middle-class sensibilities as a demon taking possession of a nice, healthy, clean all-American teenage girl. "The Last Exorcism" begins as a faux-documentary about the preacher Marcus, a one-time exorcism specialist — that is, faker — who's giving up his scamming on account of his wavering belief and the conscience that was awakened by his own disabled child. Like the kids say, whatever. For the benefit of the documentary crew, he's going to perform one final ritual (just like the cinematic master thief or con man who's getting out after the mythical "last score"). Picking a case at random, Marcus and his skeleton crew find themselves at the remote farmhouse of a surly widowed father of two whose cloistered teenage daughter appears to have taken to slaughtering livestock on her never-remembered evening sojourns. After demonstrating various tricks of his corrupt trade to the camera (you'll learn how to make a crucifix smoke, in case you're interested), Cotton (well-played, as all the roles are, by a bluff Patrick Fabian) and the conscientious female filmmaker (Iris Bahr) try to address what they consider young Nell's real trouble: a pregnancy.
But of course there's no point in making a film such as this except to reiterate the point made by the great Christian country music duo the Louvin Brothers, to wit, that Satan is real. Or Satanists are real. Or ... something. What director Daniel Stamm and writers Huck Botko and Andrew Gurland instead cook up is a bland "Blair Witch Project" quasi-rip that can't even stick to the self-imposed rules of the "found-footage" horror film or thriller (see also Neil Burger's "Interview With the Assassin"), first coming on like a "finished" work with explanatory titles and such, then devolving and cheating like mad by using outside music cues, various two-camera setups even as it goes to great pains to point out that the "film" is the work of a single cameraman, and more. Scares, such as they are, come from a lot of crazy-people-charging-at-the-camera bits. There's a peculiar bit involving cat murder by camcorder (the craven filmmakers establish the victim here as a not particularly cute or friendly barn cat), but that's about as strong as the thing gets — face it, any exorcism movie carrying a PG-13 rating is pretty much guaranteed to be weak tea (or do I mean pea soup?) anyway.
The whole point of movies such as these, again, for better or worse, is to astonish its audience. With frights, or shocks, or just with sheer meretricious crassness. The only thing finally astonishing about "The Last Exorcism" is its goofiness. One can only conclude that Roth's name is on this picture because he lost a bet.
Glenn Kenny is a writer living in Brooklyn. He was the chief film critic for Premiere magazine from 1998 to 2007. He contributes to various publications and websites, and blogs at http://somecamerunning.typepad.com.