The Positive: I enjoyed The Last Exorcism a great deal, echoing many of jennydreadful’s thoughts on the film. The concept was an intriguing mix of other horror films; the story of The Exorcist or The Exorcism of Emily Rose and the cinéma vérité approach to camera work found in The Blair Witch or Quarantine. These aren’t new ideas but are combined in an honest and gimmick-free way. Rather than be limited by these parallels or fall into a series of references, the story is played “straight” and stands on its own.
Characters were well-rounded and all delivered strong performances. Patrick Fabian absolutely shines as Cotton Marcus, the preacher charlatan. His performance has a down-to-earth realism that makes him immediately likable, as any con-man/clergy man should be. The Sweetzer family are the poorly educated yokels but never slip into comedic self-parody. Characters are played as real people rather than stereotypes so it’s possible to connect with them readily and feel real tension and dread as terrible things begin to happen to them.
As a ghost story, this film lives on tension and dread. As with other hand-held camera films, what is outside the frame is just as important as what is clearly seen and the limited field of view always has the viewer yearning to spot the scares coming before even the characters do. Sound design warps the space around the camera as eerie footsteps stalk the viewer. Scored music feels somewhat out of place in a film that otherwise treats the cinéma vérité style with such respect, but the music is kept to quiet, vague violin and guitar sounds rather than tunes and it blends into the background and sound effects are prominent.
Violence occurs in outbursts and there is always the promise that things are going to get much worse, despite Cotton’s assurance that he can smooth everything out. Seeing how the fear weighs down on the characters and wears away their control is the real meat of the horror experience.
In spite of all that was good with the film, it left me disappointed and I walked out of the theater with a bad aftertaste.
The Negative: What damaged this film for me was its ending. Perhaps to meet the need of the stereotyped horror twist ending, the last few minutes of the film take a very sudden change in tone and cut short a mystery that was beginning to lead toward a dramatic and promising end. The topper to this was writing and acting that were a shallow parody and a very poor costuming choice that stands out like a sore thumb. The sequence made me think of Vincent Price rather than Father Karras.
A bad ending can ruin a film for many and by some coincidence, bad endings have spoiled a lot of the films I’ve recently seen. I don’t ask for a neat resolution to the films I enjoy. (The end of Blade Runner is famously open-ended and it’s my all time favorite.) What I do ask is for a consistency to an ending, so that it feels like a part of the same film and does not betray what has come before. As it stands, those last few minutes turned a glowing 5 star rating into a disappointed 3.
Would I recommend the film? It’s a thorny question. While I wouldn’t want anyone to miss the terrific performances on display and I feel any fan of similar films will find much to enjoy, the stumble at the finish line is impossible to ignore. Perhaps if you go into the theater with my misgivings in mind, you won’t be as put-off by the ending as me.