The faux-documentary “cinema verite” camera style is increasingly prevalent in horror flicks these days and not just because the technique enables budget-conscious genre filmmakers to expend fewer resources on things like locations lighting and visual effects. When done convincingly as in the surprise blockbuster Paranormal Activity it adds an element of chilling authenticity that can dramatically enhance otherwise weak or derivative material. When done poorly as in the hokey alien-abduction thriller The Fourth Kind it comes off as little more than a cheap cinematic trick.
The faux-doc approach is for the most part put to effective use in Daniel Stamm’s The Last Exorcism an unpretentious indie thriller that aims to blend the ethereal terror of William Friedkin’s 1973 horror classic The Exorcist with the this-is-really-happening novelty of The Blair Witch Project. Its cast made up primarily of modestly talented vaguely recognizable TV actors is led by Patrick Fabian as the Reverend Cotton Marcus a handsome charismatic preacher bred from the cradle to spread the Word. But beneath his true believer facade lies a profound disillusionment with his faith the roots of which he frankly confesses to the documentary crew he’s assembled to chronicle his last cynical days in the pulpit. When he receives a letter from a distressed father pleading for him to perform an exorcism on his seemingly schizophrenic child Cotton embraces the opportunity to record the most bogus of religious rituals for posterity. (Cinephiles will note the story’s strong resemblance to that of Marjoe the Oscar-winning 1972 documentary about a traveling evangelist.)
To the creepy backwoods of rural Louisiana Cotton and his documentarians go encountering a handful of colorful yokels before arriving at the ramshackle house belonging to Louis Sweetzer a stone-faced alcoholic whose faith adheres to the more superstitious fire-and-brimstone variety of Christianity. Louis’ delightful brood includes Caleb (Caleb “Clammyface” Jones) a prickly unstable skeptic and Nell (Ashley Bell) a friendly gracious 16-year-old. All kids are little demonic at that age but bright-eyed Nell’s malevolent fits go beyond the typical hormone-fueled teen tantrums: Among her unusual hobbies are contorting her body into inhuman poses drawing ominous pictures of grisly murders and mutilating housepets and farm animals. Surely Satan and his minions must be involved.
It’s a clever ploy by the filmmakers to set The Last Exorcism in the deep south a place that needs no supernatural help to scare the bejesus out of people. Each of the three members Sweetzer family are creepily off-center as if their drinking water is spiked with equal amounts of Ambien and Dexedrine. Even the sweetly innocent face of the unpossessed Nell has an unsettling quality to it (it's oddly reminiscent of Vampire Weekend's controversial Contra album cover). All of which suggests that Cotton and his documentary crew are about to be taught a painful lesson in redneck theology.
Director Stamm’s principal aim is to unnerve rather than shock and while The Last Exorcism features its fair share of scares its tone is geared more toward keeping you on the edge of your seat than making you jump out of it. Disturbing details about the Sweetzer family are gradually revealed giving rise to insinuations of incest and other acts far more sordid than mere demonic possession the likelihood of which appears ever more possible as Cotton’s hocus-pocus treatments for Nell serve only to exacerbate her violent episodes. The film is betrayed at times by inaccuracies (Cotton employs a crucifix as one of his props apparently unaware that they’re the sole domain of Roman Catholic clergy) and its chaotic blink-and-you’ll-miss-it climax which pack about a half-dozen twists into a 90-second flurry of darting camerawork and what appears to be community-theater reworking of Rosemary’s Baby resolves matters in a devilishly disappointing fashion.