Like a magician revealing trade secrets, we follow Marcus and his two-man film crew down Louisiana way to the Sweetzer residence, where he pulls out all the stops, first feeding into the symptoms of the peculiar young girl Nell (Ashley Bell), then to his entire prefabricated ceremony, complete with a hidden iPod wailing stock demon sound effects, and a crucifix rigged to exert steam when pressed. Mr. Sweetzer (Louis Herthum) and, more importantly, Nell eat it up. Cut to Marcus counting his dough.
The first forty or so minutes of the film work because Marcus is charismatic and interesting, not to mention very funny in his disingenuous showmanship. But the scenes play subtly suspenseful as well because the audience knows the rug will eventually be pulled from under him—And when it is, it’s a that shame things so quickly spiral into the sloppy and the spoiled. More so than “Quarantine” (or consequently, “[REC]”) or “Paranormal Activity,” “The Last Exorcism” is a film being advertised (and seemingly relentlessly) with a greatest hits compilation of its most horrific moments, cherry-picked from the few sequences that actually contain them.
Not only does that diminish the impact of the shots in context, but all the subtlety and restraint of the first half crumbles around them once the hardcore horror gets going. What works about “The Last Exorcism” is its intimacy, and as it wears on, its scope exponentially widens. Suddenly, the film crew are our central characters while new ones are still being introduced. It climaxes in an ending both abrupt and irrelevant, leaving what should feel intriguing unsatisfying.
The movie might have worked better had it retained its focus on Marcus throughout the second half. Maybe the faithless preacher being scared straight is old hat, but the story really feels like it’s leaning that way until it’s not. Until it isn’t even about Marcus anymore—It’s just about going through the horror movie motions. Keeping it simple would at least have kept it coherent; instead, the film balloons into a sufficiently atmospheric, but ultimately dull and unfrightening chase film. The third act has the cast running into and out of houses, sheds, and vans like characters from a “Scooby-Doo” cartoon.
The hectic disorganization sullies much of what I found so compelling about the film initially—The beginning of “The Last Exorcism” is effective expressly because it isn’t trying to be scary. When it tries, it’s apparent it’s trying. Ultimately, I’d rather see the documentary (real or otherwise) about the fake exorcism than the real one it becomes.
But if I am afraid, it’s that the faux-film aesthetic Stamm borrows will soon be exploited and crippled by increasingly derivative filmmakers. “The Last Exorcism,” despite its flaws, further proves that the technique is particularly well suited to horror (the trailer for “The Virginity Hit” makes a clear case against comedy), and had the writing in its second half lived up to the first, it really might have been something special.
Alas, like “1408,” the movie simply has nowhere to go once called to deliver on its premise. The disappointment is even more profound here; the suspense, the characterization, and the sly sense of humor are all spot on. And then it tries to scare you.