You've seen 'The Exorcist,' right? You know, that fun little childhood favorite where demonic possession is portrayed like a walk in the park, full of awful acting, horrid dialogue, and a lack of a real sense of terror or fright?
Oh, sorry. Nothing I said above was at all truthful. 'The Exorcist' (at least, the original theatrical version) is an amazing piece of "horror" cinema, one of the defining films for the genre. There aren't many films out there like it, and most religious horror films fail to hit the mark, in my eyes, often creating films that are memorable only due to how uneventful and, ironically, forgettable they are. 'Stigmata' and 'The Order' are both damn poor films, even if there is a fun bit here and there, while dreck like 'Legion' makes us yearn for a holy apocalypse to prevent future garbage of the sort from being created. 'The Exorcism of Emily Rose' may be one of the few other mainstream films to depict the battles between exorcists and demons, but it really failed to hit the mark and resonate.
'The Last Exorcism' doesn't redefine the horror genre, or the religious horror sub-genre. It doesn't bring much creativeness to the table. What it does do, though, is blend enough familiar elements to create a fun experience that can be quite effective...up until the moment the ending makes the entire thing seem like a bloody joke, a cruel hoax.
Rev. Cotton Marcus (Patrick Fabian) is not your ordinary man of God. Actually, he's quite literally a hypocrite. Marcus has lost his faith, in a sense, after his entire life's purpose of being a pastor cost a young boy his life in a botched exorcism. He's a showman, and a damn good one, too, who knows all the tricks of the trade, and knows a thing or two about all the various "possessions" out there, and why people can't see that their illiteracy, ignorance, and extreme belief is the cause of the various "demons" they encounter. He has a cameraman and assistant (Iris Bahr) on hand as he goes out to film one final exorcism, revealing all the misleading practices, devices, and gimmicks he's used over the years, but what he thought was a simplistic case of an overbearing father turns out to be something more: an actual demon possession.
Marcus hates working with kids, due to his past failure, but has no choice after his arrogance brings him to the Sweetzer farm to help Nell (Ashley Bell), a 16 year old girl who has been slaughtering her family's animals. After his trickery fails to solve the problem, and the constant interference of the creepy, controlling Louis Sweetzer (Louis Herthum), Nell's father, only makes matters worse, Marcus must come to grips with his own beliefs before he lets another child be taken.
'The Last Exorcism' is a mixture of voyeurism, faux documentary, horror film, and, in a sense, parody. Strangely enough, though, the blend of inspirations and ideas blends together to create what I feel is the big brother of the "found footage" film family, a film that transcends the "last moments of so-and-so, for you to watch" origins, due to the terrific performance of its lead actor, and the strength of the writing for his role. It doesn't feature much of the annoying out of focus, running through the woods/streets shots that have plagued similar features. It doesn't feature characters professing their levels of fears, as if they're trying to convince us more than they are themselves. 'The Last Exorcism' features a man of God, a man who we should all trust, revealing his less-than-honest ways, falling victim to his own hubris.
Fabian, a TV show bit character mainstay for most of his career, moved past his character actor origins to truly make this film his own. His mannerisms and amazing vocal talents are only bested by his conviction in the role, where he truly becomes Cotton (which was the original title of the film). Of course, there would be no story here without the possession, and that's where Bell shines. Granted, no exorcism performance will ever match the Academy Award nominated turn by Linda Blair, but Bell does create an innocent, naive character, and most importantly, a believable one.
'The Last Exorcism' may offend those with strong religious backgrounds, as those who believe in exorcism will find their views openly mocked, as the good reverend reveals his tricks to the trade. It may also fail to scare, as it isn't based in horror as much as some may like. It also may disappoint, as it had me hook, line, and sinker, until the final ten minutes or so that were as blasphemous to the film before them as Cotton Marcus may be to Christians. Still, there are so many flashes of truly inspired work, that it's almost easy to disregard the shortcomings of the film, and appreciate the way this story is told. Original without being original, 'The Last Exorcism' is one of the better handheld cam films made, boasting easily the best performance of any film of its ilk.
The Disc: Vital Stats
'The Last Exorcism' is housed on a Region A BD50 Dual Layer disc, housed in a two disc eco-case, covered by a slipcover that replicates the cover art. Please note that the sticker on the slip may be quite difficult to remove without ripping off part of the art, as the stock used is far from glossy. This Blu-ray disc may take some time to load in your Blu-ray player. In the two times I loaded it, I thought my Playstation 3 had frozen on the java load screen, since it stayed in the same spot for an extended period of time.
Lionsgate brings 'The Last Exorcism' to Blu-ray with an AVC MPEG-4 (1080p, 1.78:1) encode that seems true to its source, and is free from post-production tampering, but still is far from the best stuff out there. Colors are crisp and sharp in day moments and well lit shots, but night shots they often feel drowned out and free from distinction. Detail levels are strong, with great skin tones, wonderful textures, and just tons of life on screen...in day shots. You see a pattern, yet? The detail found in the voyeuristic moments of the film, the casual random observances, are beyond amazing, and really had me sold on the disc. The picture is deep in exteriors, though is often flat in interiors. How that works is beyond me. There's some very slight banding to be found, as well as some crush and a few exteriors suffering from oversaturation. There is also some blurring, as well as more than a few soft, murky shots scattered throughout. Fans of the film will note most of the problems with the video are inherent in the source, but it's tough to justify putting this release in that upper tier, where films don't have any of these issues, intentional or not.
'The Last Exorcism' gets a DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 mix that did two things: not make much noise from the rears, and removed me from the film experience. This film is supposed to be that of a handheld documentary, and while rear use was fairly light, it reminded me that I wasn't watching a doc, and that bothered me a bit. The track has excellent room dynamics, the occasional bit of localization and pop, as well as some solid bass rumbles and pulses any time a "possessed" moment was taking place. A few words in the track feel awkward, as the random ambiance did drown them out, rare as it was. The film has a very fun lived in feel, that's almost accurate to the method it is trying to portray, and is a fun listen, but it fails to be anything truly special.
'The Last Exorcism' doesn't reinvent the wheel, but has its shining moments, even if it lacks scares, and it features a breakout performance by Fabian. The Blu-ray release is above average, but nothing revolutionary. This may be a title that is best served as a rental before a blind buy, as it is likely to divide audiences between strong adoration and loathing. Whether you buy it or not, if you're interested in possession, twisted religion, or unusual horror, you really should check this one out.