Had Lionsgate stuck with the title of Cotton, this movie might not have been quite as disappointing (then again, it also wouldn't have been as profitable, so there you go). The title Cotton correctly creates an expectation that the movie is a character study first and an exorcism movie second and as a character study, The Last Exorcism isn't half-bad. Patrick Fabian is excellent as Cotton Marcus, a disillusioned preacher who was raised by his reverend father to follow in his footsteps. Having been groomed as a child preacher, Cotton has been getting parishioners good with God for years. He's also performed many exorcisms, all of them fraudulent. A news story about a botched exorcism that resulted in the death of a young boy has inspired him to perform one last exorcism, with a documentary crew in tow, in order to "out" the phony practices of the church and hopefully stop people from turning to a potentially dangerous method of "curing" their loved ones.
Cotton randomly picks a letter sent to him asking for help and soon he and the doc crew are off to the isolated grounds of the Sweetzer farm where Nell Sweetzer (Ashley Bell), the teenage daughter of stern widower Louis (Louis Herthum), is in the throes of what Louis believes is demonic possession. Nell's younger brother, Caleb (Caleb Landry Jones), greets the intrusion of Cotton and co. with surly anger and characterizes his father as "a superstitious drunk." So far, so good. It's an interesting set-up, the actors are giving it their all, and as the story progresses, there's several unexpected twists and the question of whether Nell is truly possessed or not is kept up in the air.
The problem is that little of what's happening is the least bit scary. It's interesting, yes, but when you refer to a horror movie as "interesting," that's often just a code word for "boring." I can't fault the reaction of kids who went to see this (thanks to its PG-13 rating), spent two hours shifting in their seats waiting for a horror movie to kick in, and left pissed when the end credits rolled. It's not for nothing that audiences are calling bullshit on this movie. I don't think horror movies should have to cater to the attention deficit crowd but in this case, I can't blame people for feeling they were short-changed.
One aspect of The Last Exorcism that I liked that few others do is its controversial ending. I'm not sure what people don't like about it. Is it that it's too abrupt, that it leaves too much unresolved, or that it's too cartoonish? Without giving away specifics, I think if the movie had ended any other way, I would've been let down. The ending has a sense of pay-off that the movie really needed, where all the ambiguity is finally kicked to the curb. And for those who find it too abrupt, or too much of a left-field development, I say that it was laid out in a way that would reward a second viewing. If the complaint is that it's too horror movie cheesy, I say that's something the movie could've used more of. If anything, it left me wishing that someone would get a full-on return to satanic thrillers going. Movies like The Devil's Rain and Race With The Devil (both 1975) scared the shit out of me as a kid and I think that devil worshippers will always be ripe material for horror films. In the meantime, The Last Exorcism is just a tease.
The film's biggest issue, its lack of scares and the love-it-or-hate-it ending aside, is the faux-doc format. When you have a movie like this, the first question that needs to be asked was "how was this footage found?" and "who put this movie together?" The Blair Witch Project (1999) is a perfect example of how to do the "found footage" conceit right. Kids disappeared in the woods; at a later date, the footage they made of their trip was found, and that's the film you're watching. If you're doing a found footage movie, it has to make sense within the premise of the film. [REC] (2007) is another good example - it's the footage shot by a TV news crew. Easy. With The Last Exorcism, the idea that this is the work of a documentary crew makes no sense. It could've, maybe, if they didn't present the film as a finished doc. There's onscreen titles to identify speakers, there's a music score - this isn't just found footage, it's a film that's passed through some hands. That would be ok to a point but the ending shoots that out of the water. When the climax unfolds, the question of how the footage was found and who put it all together becomes a sticking point.
The notion that this is all being filmed by a documentary crew also reveals its flaws earlier when Nell is going through her second rite of exorcism and it appears that a demon really might be in her. Her body goes through all kinds of painful, impossible-looking contortions but yet the cameraman keeps turning his camera to get the reactions of the other people standing around. Sorry, but if you've got a camera and a girl is going through some kind of possession right in front of you - why would you move the camera off of that for even a second? You wouldn't. It'd be like being in the right place at the right time to shoot footage of Bigfoot coming out of the woods but turning your camera to check out a squirrel.
To me, the whole point of making a faux-doc about an exorcism would be to blow people's minds by having the familiar staples of exorcist movies happening "for real." It would be a FX challenge to have this stuff - the bed rising, the projectile vomiting, the words appearing on someone's bare skin, etc, - all happening in a single take, and done "live" as it were. That should be the "wow" factor of a movie like this, to take it back to old-school FX, the tradition of stage magic. If you're not going to do that, you might as well make it as a straight narrative film.
The makers of The Last Exorcism didn't have a bad story to tell. It's just too bad they didn't know the best way to tell it. Its title aside, this won't be the last exorcism horror fans see on screen but it will be one of the least.