Poised between the competing ideologies of Christian fundamentalism and scientific rationalism, The Last Exorcism would like to be something more than a cheaply made StudioCanal horror movie seeking to capitalize on the success of Paranormal Activity (with producer Eli Roth giving the film movie star cred), but there are problems.
For one, if you are going to elaborate upon Linda Blair's work in The Exorcist (1973), what is there left for a possessed teenage girl to do? (For that matter, in what way is a wild-eyed, berserk, possessed teenager any different from a normal one?) Blair's character Regan has already vomited pea soup, urinated in front of guests, levitated, spoke backwards in English, and rotated her head several times. Poor Louisiana country bumpkin Nell Sweetzer (Ashley Bell) tries to compete by twisting her head into odd positions, crying like a baby (echoing a similar sound in The Blair Witch Project), hacking some goats and cows and a cat to death, and breaking her fingers until the doubting evangelical minister Cotton Marcus (Patrick Fabian) cries out "Stop!", but somehow she's still playing second fiddle. Nell obtains some hipster red boots from one of the crew who arrive at her dad's farmhouse to film a documentary about her exorcism. (For awhile, I entertained the notion of cat blood-splattered cotton dresses and red boots becoming the hot new fashion look for fall.)
Be that as it may, what separates The Last Exorcism from other "realistic" jerky handheld camera motion Blair Witch ripoffs is its intellectual pretension that may in part account for the fact that the film is not all that scary. A scene late in the film evokes both Rosemary's Baby and Nathaniel Hawthorne's "Young Goodman Brown." The charismatic and fraudulent young preacher Cotton Marcus' name alludes to Cotton Mather, a Puritan minister who participated in the Salem Witch Trials. In contrast, Cotton Marcus has a website, a way with words (he brags of his ability to sway a congregation with a recipe for banana bread), and a cynical attitude toward his exorcising craft. He sees his mission as an effort to "heal people" who think they are possessed. Lastly, Cotton suffers an ironic crisis of the faith. Even the demon, speaking through Nell, knows that when he says, "I hear you don't believe in me." Can this admitted fraud perform a real exorcism?
In other ways, The Last Exorcism loads the dice as it falls short. Poor Nell has a creepy villainous-looking acne-scarred dad named Louis (Louis Herthum) who looks like he could be easily guilty of who knows what crimes, and a brother named Caleb (Caleb Landry Jones) who has aggression issues of his own. When he isn't throwing rocks at Cotton's van, Caleb's threatening to hurt Cotton if something happens to his sister. The entire Sweetzer household reminded me of the toxic ambiance of Bad Day at Black Rock. No one, except perhaps naive Nell, wants the film crew around.
With all of his ambitions of emulating Lars Von Trier, director Daniel Stamm still has difficulty setting up a scary scene. For instance, after his first (fake) exorcism, Cotton takes his payment, exhorts Louis to lay off the bottle, says goodbye to the Sweetzers, and then retires to a hotel. But then, sometime in the night, Nell just appears in a nearby room. How did she get there? How did she know what hotel he was in? Why is she acting so weird? But there's no suspense in the scene. She just shows up, and Cotton takes her to the hospital and requests psychiatric help for her.
The film is full of these missed opportunities. I was especially distracted by the snippets of scary non-diegetic music soundtrack that kept giving away that we are not watching a "real" documentary. Even given its copycat effective marketing, The Last Exorcism betrays the challenges of imitating Paranormal Activity, which really did only cost about $10,000 and looks crude enough to prove it. Cotton says that "in order to believe in God, you have to believe in demons," but it's another thing altogether to not see the studio gloss and calculation belying a deliberately amateurish horror film.