If there's one thing that binds the best exorcism films, it's that the really good ones all offer some great acting. The major players in The Exorcist give amazing performances, The Exorcism of Emily Rose is believable through the work of its solid ensemble, and, now, The Last Exorcism delivers a potentially star-making performance from Patrick Fabian. What seems to be a "me too" attempt at creating another Paranormal Activity is actually a fascinating, uncomfortable, character-driven look at matters of faith and fear.
I expected the typical thrills of a demon possession flick, and while The Last Exorcism delivers, beat-for-beat, almost every creepy trope of the genre, its mature focus on characterization really sets the film apart. This is a welcome approach -- a horror film about people and not just kills and thrills -- but because the scares take a back seat to the characters, it also never quite reaches the fever pitch of terror that it also seems to be working toward. It's engaging, but is it scary? I can't quite say that it is, which is a peculiar criticism of a movie that still stands as one of the best horror films of 2010.
Fabian plays Cotton Marcus, an evangelist and preacher's kid, raised in the church his whole life, but struggling somewhat with his logical self-awareness of the power he holds over others. He's not modest about the fact that he's the one moving the congregation, not God, and it's a bit of a lark to him. What he does take seriously is when people become so fixated on the spiritual world, that they accidentally harm others. Marcus allows a documentary crew to film him performing an exorcism, a long-standing Marcus family specialty, so that he can reveal that the effects of the ritual are more mental than spiritual. If someone can be convinced that they're possessed, they can be equally convinced that the exorcism rites will make them well again. It's psychosomatic Deviltry.
It's no surprise then that Marcus' first request with a film crew in tow turns out to be more than he's ready for. He's called out to assist the Sweetzer family, not just God-fearing folk, but people-fearing folk as well, having burned all their bridges with everyone in town by trying to live a Godlier life. Marcus is quick to do a little old time showboating for the camera in his attempt to rid the virginal teen Nell Sweetzer (Ashley Bell) of her demons, but when the first exorcism doesn't take, he can't seem to convince Louis Sweetzer to get some real help for his daughter. To tell Sweetzer the exorcism was fake exposes Marcus as a fraud, so the preacher is reluctantly drawn deeper into the Sweetzer's lives, frantically discussing scripture with Louis one second, and pleading for modern medical help for Nell the next.
Fabian just nails the role. Cotton is dishonest, but with good intentions. Although he's a faker, his personal faith in God is never quite addressed, allowing the audience to draw their own conclusions about how much of a charlatan he really is. His sense of responsibility keeps him at the Sweetzer farm until the matter is resolved, and there's something oddly heroic about that commitment. Horror films rarely have heroes.
That's not to say that things don't get really bad down at the Sweetzer place. The more things got worse, though, on their way to The Last Exorcism's big ending, the farther away the film seemed to be getting from the things in it that I really loved. I've seen a demon-possessed girl contort on a barn floor before (in The Exorcism of Emily Rose, actually), but I've never quite seen a character in a horror movie like Cotton Marcus. I could have used less handheld POV footage of people running around in the darkened Sweetzer home, and more scenes like the one in which Sweetzer turns a Bible verse on Cotton in a twist-of-the-knife way. Those moments that director Daniel Stamm films as straight-forward drama are the ones that really shine here.
I'll gladly trade compelling and thought-provoking for scary. Scary is relative anyway. The Last Exorcism's tension comes from its characters and situations, not from its genre cliches like foul-mouthed demon voices or a sweaty, panting little possessed girl. Those dusty, tried-and-true bits are fine, but the real reason to care about the film is because it's more spiritually complex than even most faith-based films. You want to see Marcus come to some kind of conclusion about what he truly believes, you want to see him heal Nell, even if it does mean that it's all in her head, and you want to see him prove to the world that there's no such thing as demon possession. As the old song goes, you can't always get what you want.