'Exorcism' startles naturally, but it can't last

"The Last Exorcism" is one of the scariest movies to come along in a long time — until the last five minutes or so, when it completely falls apart.

Really, that's about how quickly it all collapses. Director Daniel Stamm's faux documentary starts out with deadpan delivery and a dry sense of humor, then it turns riveting, then truly frightening, then just plain silly. It's like it morphs from being a Christopher Guest movie to "The Blair Witch Project" — as if writers Huck Botko and Andrew Gurland didn't know where to go, so they went over the top.

Until then, the filmmakers keep you guessing as to what's real and what's imagined, what's a disturbing mental disorder and what's actually demonic possession. And the fact that this Eli Roth production uses all unknown actors helps us get sucked into this eerie world.

Evangelical Louisiana preacher Cotton Marcus (Patrick Fabian) has been performing exorcisms for the past 25 years, but he knows they're all a sham. He long ago lost his faith — if he ever had any, that is — and for a while has had no qualms about taking money from true believers in the name of supporting his own family. But now, with his conscience weighing on him, he decides to let a camera crew come behind the scenes to expose his tricks as he "performs" one last exorcism.

And it truly is a performance. Cotton is hugely charismatic, a natural showman, and he's all too happy to divulge how he uses his iPod to make evil groaning sounds, or how he gets a puff of smoke to come out of his crucifix at a climactic moment. But he's not arrogant about it, which is key: He's engaging and confident but never so full of himself that he's off-putting. Fabian finds the balance in his character's conflicting motivations, which is crucial to allowing us to go along with him on this tried-and-true one last job.


Randomly, he selects a letter from the Sweetzer family living in fictional, rural Ivanwood. There, teenage daughter Nell (the extraordinary Ashley Bell) has been acting strangely and the livestock are being slaughtered. Her father, Louis (Louis Hertham), a serious fundamentalist, begs Cotton to purge the demon he thinks has possessed his innocent little girl. Her younger brother, Caleb (Caleb Landry Jones, creepy in his stillness) isn't shy about telling the reverend and his camera crew he wants them to go away.

Cotton breezes in, works his magic and breezes out. Or so he thinks. In that classically frustrating horror-film fashion, he finds he can't leave. And as he gets dragged deeper into this family's troubles, he finds himself in deeper trouble than he ever could have imagined.

Even before things turn violent, though, Stamm capably creates a suspenseful mood through the naturalism of the film's look, the expert use of silence and pacing. The insularity of the Sweetzer family, the defiant way they've cloistered themselves from the outside world since the death of Louis' wife two years ago, is enough to put you on edge. There are moments in "The Last Exorcism" that will make you hold your breath, and others that will make you want to look away.

It's rated PG-13 but don't let that fool you into thinking it's soft. Actually, it's the vagueness, the unknown, that make "The Last Exorcism" so powerful — at least for a while.

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