There was a lot I liked about The Last Exorcism before the movie even started: one of the producers is Eli Roth, whom I happen to think is one of the most colorful guys working in genre films these days, and the director is Daniel Stamm, whose little-seen A Necessary Death is an absolutely fascinating indie thriller. I was also intrigued by the film's promised combination: "faux documentary" horror (like what you see in The Blair Witch Project and [REC]) mixed with some old-school exorcism themes, all of which have been done to death since The Exorcist and its countless knock-offs -- but there's always room for a new horror flick that aspires to occult creepiness.
The premise this time around is that of a documentary feature centered on a dynamic reverend named Cotton Marcus. The man claims to have exorcised several demons over the years, but as the film starts out we can't be sure if Marcus is a true believer -- or just a really clever charlatan. Cotton allows a small documentary crew to record his latest "assignment" -- a trip to the Sweetzer farm, where a young girl is reportedly possessed by something vicious and violent. Something is definitely not right at this farm, where a lonely father cares for a cranky son and the aforementioned daughter. The local clergy want nothing to do with the problem ... so in swoops Cotton Marcus, intent on saving the day, doing God's will, and (of course) looking good for the documentary cameras. Surely this case would be a great way for Cotton to end his career...
Yeah, and then things go all sorts of crazy.
There's no denying that The Last Exorcism is a "slow burn" horror movie, which means we're given more than enough roughage like character development, plot exposition, and (best of all) an early series of conversations and concepts that actually have a bearing on the "scary stuff" later on. Basically we're shown just enough about Cotton Marcus to like and dislike the guy at the same time. Is the guy a "true believer" who has recently lost his faith? Is he a glorified sideshow huckster who's clever enough at his craft to fool all the desperate rubes? Fortunately our lead character is painted in such a way that you may admire and/or detest the guy simultaneously ... but there's no denying that he'd make for an interesting documentary subject. The character begins by enlisting a documentary crew in order to expose the "exorcist" life style he previously led ... but our fascinating anti-hero is about to get his faith back in a hurry. Lead actor Patrick Fabian, a veteran of dozens of TV shows and smaller movies, is nothing short of fantastic in the lead role.
So there's your set-up: a skeptical reverend who claims to have the skills necessary to exorcise a demon is being called on to perform his final rite. (Only he's also out to betray his own kind by showing us all the tricks of the trade!) He's met with the desperate pleas of Louis Sweetzer, the sneering derision of his son Caleb, and cautious curiosity by the clearly "afflicted" Nell. But afflicted by what, exactly? Is it something truly of the occult ... or perhaps something considerably more mundane but no less horrific. To say much more, plot-wise, would be a grave disservice to this clever little chiller. Suffice to say that you might see some of the plot developments coming ... but probably not all of them.
As with many "slow-burn" horror flicks (like the recent and terrific The House of the Devil), The Last Exorcism ramps up to a third act that delivers some satisfying answers, a few creepy ideas, and a nice kick in the pants to send you out the door. Best of all, there's an intelligence to the film that the horror faithful will almost certainly respond to. Demonic possession is a pretty juicy concept in an of itself, but Stamm does a great job of sustaining tension by distracting you with (get this) interesting characters and a novel approach to a well-traveled destination. Lots of "talky" horror films try to pull of what House and Exorcism do so well, but the key is pretty simple: make the characters multi-dimensional, provide a story that's consistently interesting when it's not being actively scary, and deliver the package in a novel or clever fashion. The Last Exorcism covers those bases quite well, and I suspect it's an occult chiller that the horror fans will be tweeting about some time soon. (Hopefully after it's been out for a while so the surprises aren't ruined.)