The Last Exorcism Review

poster from the Lionsgate film The Last Exorcism

Boy, it sure was slim pickings this week. I had a choice between a heist movie that definitely wasn’t going to be any good and an exorcism movie that probably wasn’t going to be any good. Probably not is better than definitely not, so I ended up choosing The Last Exorcism. You’ve most likely seen the trailer, but contrary to the new trailer trend of giving everything away, the trailer for The Last Exorcism gives almost nothing away. Here’s the basic plot:

An Evangelical minister having a crisis of faith goes to an isolated farm in Louisiana to film a documentary that will expose exorcisms for the scam they really are, but finds more trouble than he bargained for.

Director Daniel Stamm shot it in a fake-documentary style (I don’t want to say “mockumentary” because there are approximately three moments of facetiousness in the entire film). It’s kind of like The Blair Witch Project crossed with The Reaping and Jesus Camp. If those were three movies you thought unlikely to fit together, you have now been proven wrong, because The Last Exorcism works… mostly.


There are only about six characters in the cast that are important: the Reverend Cotton Marcus (Patrick Fabian), Iris (Iris Bahr) and Daniel (Adam Grimes) of the film crew, and the Sweetzer family, Nell (Ashley Bell), Louis (Louis Herthum) and Caleb (Caleb Landry Jones). Despite or perhaps because of the fact that they’re all relative unknowns, they’re all extremely believable as “real” people. Cotton Marcus (what, did someone reverse his first and last names on his birth certificate by accident?) is especially well cast. He’s like a used car salesman – scornful of his followers and their limited intelligence but aware that he needs them to pay his bills.

Cotton Marcus exorcising Nell from the Lionsgate film The Last Exorcism

Abra-god-abra! She is cured! … money please

The film’s greatest success is that it keeps you guessing. Cotton Marcus doesn’t believe in exorcisms or even God anymore. He’s expecting to swan in like the Scooby Doo crew and pull a rubber mask off the gardener or something, but the Sweetzer family is just as convinced that Nell has a demon inside of her. It’s even odds, right up until the end, whether Nell’s really possessed or just traumatized/mentally disturbed by the isolation of being home schooled or some sort of abuse heaped on her by her family members.

Caleb's note from the Lionsgate film The Last Exorcism

So who are we protecting? Him or her?

The whole thing is tense and believable, largely because of the first-person perspective you get from the camera work. It’s difficult to pull off the “this is real footage shot during something that really happened” look. You have to really pay attention when you’re shooting and editing. You can’t switch to another camera angle in the same scene. You can’t have the camera present in the scene without someone to hold it.

Louis and Nell Sweetzer from the Lionsgate film The Last Exorcism

So if you want to show a private moment, you have to sneak up on it.

And you can’t edit or even show the footage unless you explain how the documentary was completed or the tapes uncovered.

poster for the film The Blair Witch Project

Like The Blair Witch Project did

Failing to follow any of these rules, even for an instant, will open a crack in the immersion and ruin the tension. Stamm almost succeeds in following all the rules, except for one instance that I can’t tell you about.

The Last Exorcism is never boring, but it is poorly structured. The total running time is an hour and forty minutes. Nothing even remotely creepy happens until about 45 minutes in (though, as I said, plenty of interesting things happen).

Cotton Marcus interviewing Nell from the Lionsgate film The Last Exorcism

Well, see I don’t have any friends, I can never leave the house, and I live in the middle of nowhere with two gun-toting males… so yeah I guess that’s normal.

Then the dam breaks and there are about 20 extremely tense minutes during which you’re never quite sure what Nell is going to do next.

Nell sleepwalking from the Lionsgate film The Last Exorcism

Um, Nell? Are you sleepwalking while listening to a Latin language instruction tape by any chance?

And then finally there’s a twist and we go into the third act (where everything’s supposed to be wrapped up), but it’s only about five minutes long. Five scary, actioney minutes, but still. Everyone in the theater went: “are you f***ing kidding me!?” when the lights came up.

huge fire from the Lionsgate film The Last Exorcism

This isn’t so much a scene from the movie as it is a representation of what everyone wanted to do to the theater.

A failure of the ending means the failure of the movie, because the ending is what you’re left with. If it’s unsatisfying, that means the movie is unsatisfying. Which is a shame, because except for the abrupt ending The Last Exorcism is really quite good.

Reverend Cotton Marcus from the Lionsgate film The Last Exorcism

To believe or not to believe… that is the question

If you’re a horror movie buff and you think you can overlook a bad ending, then congratulations, you are a very rare and special person. You should go see The Last Exorcism immediately. If you’re a normal person, though, don’t bother. All you’ll be left with is frustration and disappointment.

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