From the school of "Hey kids, let's pool our milk money together, turn a camera on and make a movie!" comes another low-budget horror picture that is all gimmick and no guts. While I gave mildly passing reviews to the likes of Blair Witch and Paranormal Activity, I'm drawing the line at The Last Exorcism.
Patrick Fabian (Big Love) stars as Cotton Marcus, a slightly sleazy preacher who enjoys manipulating the congregation at his Pentecostal church. He also does exorcisms on the side, a practice he doesn't really believe in but, hey, he's got a family to feed. Since his conscience is starting to get the best of him he decides he'll do one last exorcism for old time's sake and, of course, he's going to bring along a camera crew to document the whole thing.
Cotton travels to a country farm inhabited by Louis Sweetzer (Louis Herthum, another recognizable face) and his two children, Nell (Ashley Bell) and Caleb (Caleb Landry Jones). It seems that Nell has a little bit of the devil in her, or a demon offspring to be more precise.
Bell plays Nell so super-sweet when she's not doing the possession thing that I found myself wishing the Devil himself (or herself ... the Devil could very well be a woman) would just take over and render her less annoying. The legitimacy of her possession is always in question; while she does manage to bend herself in many interesting positions, this could just be the result of hours of intense bikram yoga.
To her credit, Bell plays her possession scenes fairly well. Her spin on the whole thing is that possession is a drag, and it just makes her a little mad and sulky. I liked a shot where she was sitting on some sort of loft in her room, looking all pissed off in her goofy boots and nightgown. Regrettably, too much of the film is spent with her going overboard with the sweetheart country girl routine, and a subplot where her innocence is in question is laughably predictable.
Fabian gets a couple of laughs early on. In fact, he has his best moments as an actor before he even shows up on the Sweetzer farm. Herthum plays the confused father with a quiet grace that makes him somewhat less than your average Southern movie farmer stereotype.
Landry Jones delivers the film's best performance as the protective brother who doesn't like strangers coming to his home to perform exorcisms. Come to think of it, I probably wouldn't like a stranger in my home performing exorcisms. That would create serious interruptions during my TV time.
The whole documentary approach to horror worked well with stuff like Cloverfield and, to a lesser extent, the American remake of Rec (Quarantine). Exorcism belongs in the failed-experiment file with the likes of George Romero's awful Diary of the Dead. It doesn't help that, rather than going for the R and truly trying to freak us out, Exorcism settles for mild PG-13 scares. I'm sure Lionsgate will do the "unrated" version on DVD, and get horror fans to shell out for the extra scene where Nell eats a rat or opossum.
Something tells me I wasn't supposed to be laughing my ass off at the ending, but that's exactly what I did. Any good moments, and there are a few, that came before the finale were squelched by the final foray into Rosemary's Baby territory.
The movie cost $1.8 million to make, and made something like $21 million in its opening weekend. This puts producers in the awkward position of possibly making a sequel to something that claims to be the "last." Should've called it The Penultimate Exorcism or We Think This Could Be the Last Exorcism, But the Jury Is Out Pending Box Office Receipts, So Don't Quote Us Just Yet ...OK?