A horror film for the Christian fundamentalist set, The Last Exorcism employs the aesthetic of The Blair Witch Project for a musty demonic-possession tale that promotes strict, anti-modern doctrinal faith as the most righteous path. Director Daniel Stamm’s shaky-cam saga begins by profiling intriguing Marjoe-esque reverend Cotton Marcus, who—though having worked a fire-and-brimstone pulpit since his early years as a kid preacher prodigy—no longer believes; his concerns are now less fixated on the divine than on acquiring material wealth for health insurance for his hearing-impaired son. In an attempt to make some money while also exposing the Church and its practice of exorcisms as a sham (an objective he claims is truly God’s work), Cotton gets his tag-along camera crew to join him on a visit to the backwater Louisiana farm of Louis Sweetzer (Louis Herthum), an ultra-traditionalist who adheres to a “medieval” form of Christianity. Sweetzer believes the explanation for recent, baffling livestock mutilations is that his daughter Nell (Ashley Bell) is inhabited by the spawn of hell. Cotton, however, isn’t buying it, and thus proceeds to perform a phony ceremony full of carefully orchestrated deceptions (wire string to make hanging pictures move, iPod recordings of unholy wailing) to convince Nell and her father that she’s no longer under Beelzebub’s power.
Huck Botko and Andrew Gurland’s script builds mystery slowly, but from early images of dilapidated barns and goofy and/or menacing yokels, the story also exudes upfront condescension toward rural folk and their belief in religion’s more supernatural elements. That disdain is embodied by Cotton, whose dismissive smugness places him above those he purports to help. Yet The Last Exorcism is so obviously predicated on a late-act revelation that Nell is, in fact, possessed by the devil that the material’s actual contempt winds up being reserved for its protagonist (and, by extension, likeminded audience members), whose refusal to accept God’s existence marks him as a dangerously naïve fool—albeit no more untrustworthy than the mainstream Christian pastor/teacher whom Louis has shunned in favor of homeschooling.
Pitted against both liberal secularism and populist piousness, Louis’s old-school Old Testament faith emerges victoriously legitimized, lending the theologically engaged proceedings a hardcore red-state vibe that proves to be the film’s only novel and captivating element, what with the action otherwise defined by its derivative faux verité first-person POV, out-of-place non-diegetic sound effects, and severe absence of tension. Employing suspenseful tricks that feel as old as the Good Book itself, and constantly suggesting unseen terrors that never materialize (culminating in a tepid finale that manages to blatantly rip off two different genre classics), Stamm’s chiller proves a flaccid scare-tease.