The Aisle Steat - Movie Reviews by Mike McGranaghan
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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


The Last Exorcism
Patrick Fabian raises hell (literally) in a backwater town.

The Last Exorcism is a nice little late-summer surprise, a horror film with a shred of intelligence and uncommonly good performances. Shot in a faux documentary style, it introduces us in its opening moments to Reverend Cotton Marcus (Patrick Fabian), a preacher who has spent many years convincing people of miracles and ridding them of their demons. To the cameras, he admits that he's largely been faking it all along, although he justifies his actions by saying that he has provided a service that made sick people feel better. Still, with his wife and hearing-impaired son by his side, he's made the decision to give up the ruse. His participation in the documentary, he says, is to expose not only himself but also the whole theory that demons can possess people.

The camera crew accompanies him on his last job, which takes him to a backwoods Louisiana farm. Cotton is slightly disturbed to find out that the person he's supposed to be exorcising is a teenage girl, Nell Sweetzer (Ashley Bell). Nell has a creepy brother named Caleb (the effectively eerie Caleb Landry Jones) and an evangelical father, Louis (Louis Herthum), who is concerned for his daughter but also for his cattle, whom she slaughters nightly. Cotton believes that the girl is little more than the victim of religious fervor, so he plays some sound effects, rigs the pictures on the walls to shake, and convinces the Sweetzers that they've seen a miracle.

And then, just and he and the camera crew go to leave, Nell begins demonstrating disturbing, unexplainable behavior. I'll stop there, so as not to drop any spoiler bombs on you. Let's just say things get real creepy, real fast.

Most movies about demonic possession focus on the possessed to at least a 50/50 degree. The Last Exorcism has the clever idea to focus almost exclusively on the exorcist. This isn't a movie about a girl who's possessed by demons; it's a movie about a preacher with no faith who comes up against a situation he's not prepared to handle. The emphasis on Cotton makes the movie feel a little fresher, which is wonderful considering how many possession thrillers we've all had to sit through over the years. Focusing on him (and his reactions) also makes the suspenseful scenes more effective; they don't feel routine.

Patrick Fabian - an actor whose credits include Must Love Dogs and HBO's "Big Love" - gives what I feel is one of the year's best performances as Cotton Marcus. He plays an evangelical preacher without ever falling into the predictable stereotypes. Cotton is smart, measured, genuinely caring in a down-to-earth kind of way. Even in the few scenes where the character is putting on the "fire and brimstone" routine, Fabian never veers into cliché. Ashley Bell is also very good, in a tough role. Director Daniel Stamm doesn't go for over-the-top possession scenes; that is to say, there's no heads spinning around or pea soup vomiting. This means that Bell has to convince us with her eyes and her body contortions. She does this well, creating spooky moments that never come off as silly.

The Last Exorcism is an example of what's now being called a "found footage" movie, in that it's made to feel like raw, unedited footage from someone's camera. It lacks the intense, make-you-nuts immediacy of Paranormal Activity or Cloverfield, but that may be partially because the technique isn't novel anymore. Still, Stamm gets credit for using it well without overusing it. He keeps the tension mounting at a steady pace.

The biggest flaw in The Last Exorcism - and I think most people are going to agree with me here - is the ending. After spending 80 minutes as a largely suggestive thriller, the movie becomes startlingly overt in its final moments. The climactic scene blatantly rips off a horror classic (one the filmmakers probably assumed today's young audiences haven't seen) and the final shot resembles a more recent classic. I wish screenwriters Andrew Gurland and Huck Botko could have found an end point that was more consistent with the carefully crafted stuff that came before.

Still, that's five minutes out of an otherwise admirable 90-minute picture, and therefore more of a mild bummer than a deal-breaker.

( out of four)

The Last Exorcism is rated PG-13 for disturbing violent content and terror, some sexual references and thematic material. The running time is 1 hour and 30 minutes.