Latest exorcism film fails to deliver substance and thrill

Reverend Cotton Marcus is a song and dance man. The pulpit is his stage. The word of God is his act. The congregation is his audience. It’s his job to put on a show, and he does it well, never letting anyone in on the trick — until now.

Greater forces · The Last Exorcism introduces Reverend Marcus (Patrick Fabian), the man trying to exorcise a demon from possessed teenager Nell Sweetzer (Ashley Bell) while her brother and father loon on. - Photo courtesy of Lionsgate

This is the set up of The Last Exorcism. Struck by a crisis of conscious, Marcus has decided to allow a documentary film team behind-the-scenes access to his show and expose his sham. He is the man behind the curtain stepping onto the floor and declaring: “There is no Oz!”

Why this unprecedented step? Why this crisis of conscious? The answer lies in one word: exorcism. This is the reverend’s specialty. He has been performing them since the age of 10, ostensibly casting out demons and saving souls from the depths of hell. There’s only one problem: He has never encountered a demon.

Yes, it’s all fake. All a fraud. Marcus is a snake-oil salesman, a carpetbagger who preys on the gullible, the easily swayed, the fearful and the weak. He is the antithesis of a man of God. He is an exploiter of faith.

Until now he’s been able to rationalize his behavior. His is a victimless crime. He brings peace to the troubled — for a price. But exorcisms are on the rise, and they are becoming increasingly dangerous. A young boy recently died, and this is too much for Marcus. He knows exorcisms are fake and he will not allow people to die for this sham. Thus, he decides to make a documentary about what will be his last and final exorcism.

It is a wonderful premise, the kind from which classic horror films are made. It deals with the clash between the unbeliever and the supernatural, crisis of faith, man’s relationship with God. There is only one problem: The film does not live up to the idea that inspired it.

It is unfortunate, but The Last Exorcism’s glib irresponsibility undermines the sense of spirituality that should saturate such a film.

The problem begins with the decision to employ a documentary style, which at this point is a cheap and overused trick. Thematic lighting? Set design? Hollywood, you used to do it so well.

Documentary is, of course, employed to enhance realism, but why? The premise is theological, spiritual. Spirituality and reality exist on different planes. Why try to equate them?

As it stands, it feels like a cheap nod to the popularity of last year’s Paranormal Activity, but the two are very different films. Whereas Paranormal Activity is a horror romp, The Last Exorcism deals with a much more serious subject matter: a man’s soul.

Indeed, when watching the film you get the sense that the filmmakers were deliberately trying to avoid comparisons with that well-known horror flick, The Exorcist. This is understandable, but it is also a shame.

If The Last Exorcism had approached its subject with the same care as found in The Exorcist, it would have been a much better film, comparisons be damned. I’d much rather see a quality drama that pledges allegiance to a popular classic than a cheap knockoff that tries to capitalize upon a current fad.

Moving from the intellectual to the practical, enhanced realism grounds the audience’s imagination. One of the keys to the horror genre is creating a world where the audience believes that anything can happen. The goal is to make the audience run wild with anticipation — and then capitalize.

The Last Exorcism doesn’t do either. Rather, the documentary style merely results in a few shocks and cheap thrills, but nothing more. It fails to create suspense.

In many respects, the film is like Marcus himself, often too flippant and incapable of taking anything seriously. None of the characters besides Marcus are well-developed or unique. Instead they are cardboard cutouts lacking depth and originality.

The Sweetzer family (the subjects of the exorcism) are naught but a clan of ignorant country bumpkins who subscribe to every stereotype imaginable. They’re uneducated, stubborn, overly suspicious outsiders whose simple faith makes them appear to be backwards.

The filmmakers seem to peer down their noses at the Sweetzer family’s lifestyle with a sense of cool detachment. We are supposed to snicker at the fact that daughter Nell Sweetzer has been home-schooled for religious reasons and axiomatically believe that Louis Sweetzer’s has an incestuous relationship with his daughter. Indeed, it is borderline insulting.

Setting this aside, however, the performances in the film are surprisingly solid, especially for the horror genre. Patrick Fabian gives a quality turn as Marcus, perfectly embodying his fast-talking charm. He carries the film on his back. Ashley Bell, likewise, is solid as Nell Sweetzer. She’s hardly Linda Blair, but then again few are. The rest of the cast give concrete, workmen-like performances.

Ultimately, The Last Exorcism is undone by the fact that it cannot decide what it wants to be. Is it a campy summer horror flick, or is it something more – a work of drama? As such, it succeeds as neither, too shallow to be taken seriously, not fun enough to be enjoyable.

Sam Colen is a junior majoring in economics/mathematics. His column “O’ Lucky Critic” runs Fridays.