The Last Exorcism is another "found footage" movie focusing on a fake documentary being made about Reverend Cotton Marcus, who after years of questioning his faith, has decided to allow a film crew to follow him to an "exorcism" so he can show how fake it all really is. Things don't go exactly as planned of course and what follows is an impressive film that is able to accomplish a lot and not feel too restricted by the "shaky cam" gimmick. It's a film that constantly stays two steps ahead of the viewer. Every time I thought I had the movie figured out, a game changer was thrown my way, constantly making me question (in a good way) where this was all headed. The movie does a wonderful job of building the characters and thankfully focuses less time on random jump scares, which sometimes plague these types of movies, making them feel unbearably forced.
Reverend Marcus is an engaging character and I was very happy to see that he was portrayed as a modern man who just happened to be raised in the church. He is a product of his environment but at the same time he is breaking off from his traditional upbringing based on a practical and logical mindset. The Reverend is a great showman, so great that he may have even tricked himself into believing his sermons that he began giving at such a young age. It was a relief to see the movie go this route instead of having him be a broad caricature of a rich southern preacher who gets his jollies swindling his poor followers for his own financial gain. He may be flawed (he admits to being a fake but says he provides a needed service and in return is able to support his family) but he is sympathetic enough so when the film starts to take a turn, you actually care about his outcome.
There is a great scene early on in the movie of the Rev. showing off his "magic tricks" to the camera after performing an exorcism. He closely resembles a young kid gleefully showing how he performed a parlor trick in front of his family. I think it's interesting to see how much Reverend Marcus sees himself as an magician/actor because it adds an intriguing layer to the moral debate of his character. When you really think about it, who are actors but con men playing the roles of other people? They put on a different persona for the camera and are rewarded financially based on how good they are at becoming a fake person. Some movies are so engaging to us that they even help us work through our own issues as we watch them. Is this really that different then how the Reverend helps these people by performing an exorcism? Sure the argument can be made that we know the movies are fake to begin with while the Reverend's followers truly believe, but whose to say that subconsciously, they know it's all a game but need to see the performance played out for them in order to feel relief?
The main question of the movie is whether or not this family needs a show or the real thing. The "possessed" girl (played to perfection by Ashley Bell) is a home-schooled teenager that has had her family torn apart due to the death of her mother from cancer. She lives alone on a large farm property with her now alcoholic dad and her socially detached brother. Ashley Bell plays sweet and innocent in such a loving way that it's even more shocking when she starts acting "odd." It's no question that this girl is in need of help. What the movie does is make you question whether the help needed is of a spiritual or psychological kind. I don't want to get into any spoilers related to that in this review because I went in fairly clean and felt that aided in my enjoyment of the movie. As I said before though, the movie never gets predictable and changes things up right until the very end.
The summer is never a great season for horror so it is welcoming to see such a good old-fashioned one get released now. I'm glad they decided on August instead of a couple months from now because while Fall may be the best season for horror, it's hard for smaller movies to find an audience when they are one of multiple horror movies opening up in the same month. I would have hated seeing this get lost in the shuffle between Saw VII and Paranormal Activity 2. While I have my own personal gripes with the "found footage" gimmick, I will admit that those movies always play better in a theater and I believe The Last Exorcism is no exception. At the very least, you'll walk out of the theater with a great new banana bread recipe.