Until 2010, I had given up on exorcism films. I just didn't think anybody had anything else to do with the genre. All other exorcism movies that came out after 1973 were pretty much just checklists of "The Exorcist," and they all followed the Freidkin template closely. Every time I've thought that I've seen everything I'll ever see regarding vampires, zombies or werewolves, a filmmaker seemingly comes along and breathes new life with those archetypes. That never seemed to happen with the exorcism genre, until I saw "The Last Exorcism."
Yes, I am very much an adamant fan of this movie. I know it was incredibly divisive upon its release. I know several of you will kindly disagree with me. But I am always so taken aback by this movie. A few weeks ago, I watched it again, and it still gets under my skin. There is one scene in particular where I can't look at the screen, it freaks me out that much. It doesn't matter if I'm watching it in the middle of the day, I can't look at the screen. While there are images in this movie that are a direct reflection of things we usually see in exorcism movies, Daniel Stramm took things in a different direction, and it lead to a film that feels unique.
Patrick Fabian is one of those actors that I feel like should be more well-known then he is. He's been in several movies and television shows at this point, and in each of them, he's always left a lasting effect. Patrick Fabian plays Cotton Marcus, a small-town preacher from the Deep South. He's not like every Southern preacher though. He's got a flair for the Good Word, but he's also approachable, friendly, a man you can relate too. He seems like the kind of guy you could discuss any topic with, which may seem weird to describe a preacher. He also knows how good he is at spreading the word of Jesus, and relishes every moment he's in front of his congregation. There is a great scene in the middle of his introductory scene where he describes his mother's banana bread recipe in the middle of his sermon and nobody notices. There is a documentary crew following Marcus Cotton around, and they are after something specific.
Cotton Marcus, though a talented preacher, is a surprisingly cynical man. He's not a true believer. He got into preaching because his father got him into it. He does it because he's good at it. One unique thing the movie is that Cotton is very upfront about exorcism. But exorcism doesn't occur because the church is trying to rid demons from the world, the church conducts them because they are offering a civil service. There is this "conspiracy" of sorts that demons aren't real and that the church conducts exorcisms to help, what they see as, sick people with mental disorders. Again, Cotton doesn't believe in demons either, he used to conduct exorcisms because he was good at them. Until something bad happened at another church that haunted him. He invited this documentary crew to his home because he's going to expose exorcism for what it is, fraud. He gets tons of mail asking to perform exorcism, and he grabs a letter seemingly at random. Soon, Cotton and his documentary crew are swept away to Louisiana.
They go to the Sweetzer family farm, where a young girl named Nell (Ashley Bell) is seemingly possessed by a demon. Cotton performs his fake exorcism, and shows his documentary crew specifically that Nell is probably just going through a bad family trauma after her mother passed away. The exorcism is a success, and they leave. Of course this is when strange things start happening. Ashley Bell throws herself at her role. Its amazing how creepy this girl can be without any CGI scenes and no major make-up done, which usually happens in movies like these. There are moments where she is able to contort her body in all these weird ways, and it only adds to the creep factor. While there are moments of CGI near the end, its never in over abundance. There are very few movies that can pull off the "fake documentary" feel that this movie aims for, and "The Last Exorcism" is very successful in that regard.
One of the things that divided audiences back in 2010 was the ending. Many people called it a random cop-out, while just as many were rocked by the ending. You may hate the ending or you may love it, but its definitely not a cop-out. As Cotton and the documentary crew enter Louisiana, pay very close attention to the people they interview about the small town the Sweetzer's live in. When the documentary crew finally gets to the Sweetzer farm, pay very close attention to the to the pictures Nell has drawn and hung in her room. Pay attention to the exchange between Cotton and Pastor Manley, the town preacher who had a falling out with Nell's father. The surprise ending may feel sudden, and there is plenty about it that isn't quite explained, the movie does end with questions. But the movie is laced with clues throughout, and if you pay close attention, you can decode much of the movie on your own.
Do I think "The Last Exorcism" is as great as "The Exorcist?" Oh, no, nothing had touched that movie, and I'm not sure anything ever will. But "The Last Exorcism" is full of enough fun and enough spooks that I consider it a win. Still do, as a matter of fact. This is a fun one to watch with horror loving friends, and it gives you something to talk about afterward. Trying to figure out what the ending means should be a treat for all involved. I wish I could tell you the sequel was a great as this first one, but please, just pretend that piece of hot garbage doesn't exist.