Film 4 Frightfest: The Last Exorcism

Plot of The Last Exorcism: Demon meets girl, girl kills cows

The story follows Reverend Cotton Marcus (Patrick Fabian), a charismatic evangelical minister and famed exorcist having a crisis of faith. As he prepares to quit the church and the exorcising racket for good, Marcus agrees to let a documentary crew follow him as he performs his last exorcism. His intention is to expose exorcism for a placebo cure, showing the fakery that exorcists use to scare the ‘possessed’ out of their psychosis and to hustle small town believers out of their money. Inevitably, Cotton’s last exorcism turns out to be more troublesome than Cotton thought – cattle-mutilating farm girl, Nell (Ashley Bell) just won’t be cured. With Nell’s devoutly deranged father (Louis Herthum) breathing down his neck, can Cotton convince Nell’s Father to get her the psychological help that she needs, or is there in fact a demon lurking inside her?

The Last Exorcism’s hero: A slicker vicar

This horror film really hangs on Fabian’s performance as Cotton Marcus and he delivers the goods, pitching Cotton just on the right side of oily. His job as a shyster could easily alienate, but Fabian’s charismatic turn in The Last Exorcism ensures the audience is on his side. We laugh with him at his fanatical congregation and the backward locals he encounters on his way to meet Nell. We are never quite sure where Cotton’s belief system stands, and neither is he, as Cotton increasingly questions what he sees. Cotton is a welcome departure from the dour Priests we are used to in horror films. He never slips into tortured soul searching or boring religious speeches, but regards what he witnesses with the same disbelief as the audience. He is still the film’s bleeding heart, but he is also its cynical smirk, a quality missing from perhaps every possession flick that has gone before it.

Comedy horror – Send in the clowns (oh wait, I mean exorcists)

What The Last Exorcism also adds to the demonic possession sub-genre is a welcome dose of laughter. Parodying the levitating beds and shaking pictures of its predecessors, we see Cotton use these clichés as tricks to convince Nell and her family that he is the real deal, and it’s hilarious. We mock the austere religious mumbo jumbo that other horror films seem to embrace and it feels about time, but it also makes it more terrifying when Nell’s possession begins to defy rational explanation. We no longer have the cross to cling to, and as such the demonic possession element of The Last Exorcism feels surprisingly fresh and remarkably terrifying.

The evil of man…or the devil…or was it man?

While many horror films featuring possession toy with the idea that it all may be a psychological problem as opposed to a demon, none has ever done so in a way as thrilling and as convincing as in The Last Exorcism. For the majority of the film, we genuinely do not know whether the devil is really at work here of if Nell needs a long holiday in a straight jacket – and both options are presented as equally terrifying. Incest, alcoholism and abuse are all hinted at in Nell’s reality, and her increasingly unstable father is scarier than any demon. This horror film is as much a study of dark human nature as it is about possession, and in both these regards it delivers drama and terror.

The Last Exorcism – Exorcising objections

The Last Exorcism isn’t the perfect horror film. The plot seems to follow a familiar template, even if the film has done something new with it. It also veers from the mockumentary conceit, adding inexplicable music in places. Thankfully this doesn’t jar too much as you are far too engrossed in what you are watching to care. The ending however, is bound to cause criticism. For some, its frenzied and incomprehensible conclusion will feel like a bit of a cheat, negating the carefully constructed build-up that went before it. For my part I found it terrifying, and I’m still puzzling over what actually happened.

Ending objections aside, viewers are sure to forgive The Last Exorcism its flaws. With more substance than Paranormal Activity and more scares than The Blair Witch Project, The Last Exorcism manages to breathe new life into the tired demonic possession sub-genre of horror films with admirable wit and humour. The lucky attendees of Frightfest 2010 are in for a treat.

More horror films showing at Frightfest 2010

The Final

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