There’s been plenty of exorcism movies in the wake of the late William Friedkin’s seminal masterpiece The Exorcist. So it takes a good hook to make an interesting take on the subject. The Last Exorcism uses a 21st-century method to do just that.
The Last Exorcism takes on the form of a mockumentary about a charismatic Reverend named Cotton Marcus (Patrick Fabian). Cotton has a family history of performing exorcisms, and he’s upfront about the truth of religion and faith. He’s open about exorcisms not about actual demons being cast out, but helping those he perceived as mentally troubled to rid themselves of their delusion. He talks about a crisis of faith when he thanked doctors for saving his ill son instead of God. Seeing the horrors of when exorcisms went wrong have done to people, he vows to expose the practice for the fraud it is with a documentary crew in tow.
So of course, he winds up embroiled in an actual case of demonic possession. He enters the town and the locals provide plenty of seemingly delusional parroting of the same narrative about cult activity in the area. Reverend Cotton even takes a jab at one resident by asking where the UFO landings happened (to which they reply unfazed with details of where a UFO landing happened).
Exorcise and Fresh Air
Things slowly start to unravel as warnings to turn back are not only unheeded, but mocked, and by the time Cotton and the crew rock up to the Sweetzer residence where an alleged demonic possession has taken place, there’s already a feeling that Cotton’s belief system is going to go on a bit of a rollercoaster ride.
The victim of the possession played by Ashley Bell, is critical to the movie’s effectiveness, as Bell’s hypermobility allowed her to contort her body into alarming shapes, which sold the possession as its effects ratchet up. Cotton is the focus of the documentary at first, but Bell’s Nell Sweetzer takes control of things pretty quickly.
Shot for just $1.8 million dollars, The Last Exorcism’s low-fi chills connected with moviegoers and it racked up an impressive $20 million on its opening weekend in the US. It went on to gain a sequel, which critically at least, wasn’t up to the same levels as the original. The original wasn’t exactly well received by critics either.
But there’s something about the structure of The Last Exorcism that would be difficult to replicate and have the same impact. The personal cynicism of a man of God is not exactly new to this little corner of cinema, but unlike the troubled Father Karras in The Exorcist, Reverend Cotton Marcus solidifies his faith by rejecting certain aspects of it. On the surface that’s a healthy way to approach religious faith, but there’s something bitter bubbling up in how Cotton feels, and every eye-roll and guffaw at those he condescendingly paints as lacking in education makes his supposed belief paper thin. It just takes the horrifying truth of an actual exorcism for him to realize this.
The new Exorcist movies will do well to remember that the testing of faith, in all its forms, was at the heart of the original, and while not at the same level, movies like The Last Exorcism understand that better than some throwaway attempts have over the years.