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The Last Exorcism

An exorcist heads to the sticks to wrestle evil and his own crisis of faith in this smart and trim chiller.

© Lionsgate Films Patrick Fabian stars as Cotton, a minister used to pulling off phony exorcisms — until he meets Nell, played by Ashley Bell.

Cotton Marcus (Patrick Fabian: TV’s Big Love) is palling around with a couple documentarians to film his confessional. The fast-talking evangelical minister from Baton Rouge is a sleight-of-hand exorcist standing on shaky faith, and he means to expose his own con by documenting one of his so-called exorcisms. But when he follows a handwritten plea to the Sweetzer farm in backwoods Louisiana, he discovers innocent child Nell (Ashley Bell: Stay Cool) is afflicted with something his placebo routine won’t fix. Cotton might just have to believe in demons again.

Story plays out as a faux documentary, patiently building the setup by developing Cotton’s character as a charismatic fraud through interviews and back story. The frights emerge slowly. The shrewd manipulator tries to reason his way through the worsening possession as Nell’s tortured father grows ever more desperate. Limited perspective rarely slips away from Cotton and crew, a safe box of objectivity that’s steadily invaded by the building madness.

You couldn’t tell this flick is produced by Eli Roth, who made his mark as creator of the sadistic Hostel slasher films. Those films were graphic and twisted shock cinema. In contrast, director Daniel Stamm (A Necessary Death) places the bulk of his effort here behind story and character. Scares, though effective, are more spooky than horrific: Cotton prowls a darkened, lonely house in search of the troubled girl; strange voices echo from behind closed doors; Nell brings the creeps with stalking and strangeness.

Crescendos of viciousness ratchet up the suspense, but as seen from the documentary perspective it’s usually discovered in the aftermath instead of caught in the act. Gore is scant, usually limited to blood-stained clothes, but effectively unsettling.

Since the film is mockumentary, there is plenty of herky-jerky handheld camera work, but it isn’t nauseating and works well for the context of story. Stamm accomplishes a certain realism in the style, aided by strong performances all around.

This one is a surprisingly well-built chiller. Slasher fans and scare-a-minute adherents may whine. But others may appreciate a very creepifying tale built around some pretty sturdy drama.

Good chiller • PG-13 • 81 mins.