Desperately Seeking Satan
By Amy Nicholson
So what would happen if everyone stopped believing in the devil? And what if someone had the means to disprove Satan’s existence only to find that he or she were wrong and that it might be too late to ever regain a strong enough belief in God to be saved from damnation?
Those are some of the creepy questions underlying the terrific new horror film The Last Exorcism, in which a former child preacher named Cotton Marcus (Patrick Fabian), who became famous for casting out demons, has grown up to be a sarcastic con artist scamming people with fake ceremonies and false promises.
After years of deception, Marcus, whose name is clearly a take-off on 17th-century Salem Witch Trial Judge Cotton Mather, has become wracked with guilt after hearing of a young girl who died after undergoing an exorcism. As a result, Marcus hires a film crew to follow him on one last job in an attempt to reveal just how fake exorcisms are and to teach people that the devil is only part of their imaginations.
Marcus picks a request by the Sweetzer family, which lives along a dirt road in the middle of nowhere. He heads out to “free” their teenage daughter Nell (Ashley Bell) and prove that her bizarre behavior has nothing to do with demonic possession.
Anyone who has seen the film’s creepy ads, however, knows that Nell isn’t going anywhere quietly. Soon, she’s veering between her normal sweet disposition and a vicious rage that leads her to slice Cotton’s hand, climb the walls and talk like an ogre.
Cotton suddenly realizes he might have to tangle with Satan after all, but his lack of faith may very well have rendered him powerless. With one twisted moment after another spinning out of control, viewers are left to wonder if he can pull salvation back from the brink.
The Last Exorcism follows in the documentary-style footsteps of other famous horror films like The Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity, but it scores on several levels above and beyond those efforts. Blair looked like almost entirely raw footage and drew its fear fuel from its young-adult protagonists slowly losing their minds while trapped in desolate woods. Paranormal relied on dispassionate security-style footage to illustrate its dance with the dark side.
But Exorcism has a vibrant and charismatic lead to follow Fabian while maintaining the feel and appearance of being utterly real. It’s the slicker-looking, professional feel of the footage that makes the effects work so well.
Director Daniel Stamm and writers Huck Botko and Andrew Gurland wisely chose total unknowns for the leads, which was a key factor to the effectiveness of the genre, and dole out the scares in a tasteful enough fashion that amazingly keeps the film at a PG-13 rating while being utterly terrifying as it spins ever further into darkness.
With this week and next marking the end of summer—a time when studios release their worst products of the year—it’s a giddy surprise to find a fresh and freaky film lurking in the shadows.