The implication in its marketing—and its very title—is that The Last Exorcism would be The Exorcist if the classic were to be given the trendy no-budget faux-documentary treatment that’s worked wonders for a number of horror films’ box office over the last several years. This fad could be contemporary horror cinema’s answer to the acoustic cover of a song we’ve all heard; in the case of The Last Exorcism, you’re paying for the illusion that the most iconic of all horror films has been stripped of all distancing Hollywood lavishness in the service of fostering the illusion that it actually happened in someone’s backyard somewhere.
Reviews and late-summer release date notwithstanding, The Last Exorcism is a surprisingly enjoyable bit of goofy, inconsistent hokum that sort of cleverly works its inability to even remotely compete with the legacy of the Friedkin film into the fabric of its story. A variation of that film’s climactic exorcism is restaged here early on as a William Castle-esque sham that a fake preacher—with the distinctly bad movie name of Cotton Marcus (Patrick Fabian)—perpetrates in front of a film crew in order to reveal the demon cleansing business as the fear-mongering fraud he perceives it to be.
The mind-bogglingly lame ceremony is performed on a naïve teenager, Nell Sweetzer (Ashley Bell), who lives with her fundamentalist zealot father, Louis (Louis Herthum), and enraged nonbeliever sibling, Caleb (Caleb Landry Jones). The Sweetzers strike you more as potential suspects in a series of school shootings than the targets of demonic possession—and, for a while, The Last Exorcism suggests the canny parody that might have been of the divide between extreme fundamentalism and elitist agnosticism run amok. The point initially seems to be that the resentment between the parties is beside the point as both are entitled, sub-moral, and generally all around awful.
Sadly, the filmmakers don’t really care these sorts of issues, as this is primarily an opportunity for potentially talented people to a ride a gimmick to the bank. The mockumentary approach is inconsistently executed with too-polished camera work unmotivated by character movements and a conceptually misplaced horror score that over-telegraphs the scares. The performances are broad even when they aren’t supposed to be, and the much-derided ending cancels the film’s scarier incest implications out with a supernatural resolution that’s abrupt even by the standards of the subgenre.
The film still has a certain silly haunted-house charm though. The Southern atmosphere is chilling (the picture is supposed to be primarily set in rural Georgia), and a few absurd monster-cam moments ripping off [Rec] still deliver. If you can get over your justified irritation over squandered potential, then you might be able to enjoy The Last Exorcism for the slight B movie it was probably always meant to be anyway.
The image is clear and very professional, thus negating the entire point of the film's pretend caught-on-the-fly documentary shtick. The very strong digital surround is the reason a few of the scares might work if you're watching in your basement by yourself.
Appropriately enthusiastic and overheated. The "Real Stories of Exorcism" featurette strikes me as even faker than the film itself, but it might be a fun companion to the film if you and your buddies are loaded. The "Protection Prayer" is a text designed to ward off the demons that "Real Stories of Exorcism" might unleash, which is handy for both the viewers and Lionsgate's insurance companies. The commentaries are engaging, though the filmmaker/cast one is more fun for those less interested in the business/sales side of Hollywood. The Cannes trailer is a test drive of the titular exorcism used to lure investors, and it might be more effective than the version of the scene that actually appears in the film. The making-of feature is a well-produced puff piece.
An appropriately goofy and enthusiastic presentation of a B-movie programmer that's not quite as annoying as it should be.