Horror moves in ever decreasing circles; one big idea comes along, is successful, and then breeds ever more numerous and more inferior spawn. The same can be said for other genres, and film and art in general, but it’s rarely more true, obvious, and barrel-scraping than in horror. As the genre dragged itself from the tattered, splattered remains of Torture Porn, the spectre of Handheld began to loom large. Paranormal Activity brought back the low budget innovation and shocks of The Blair Witch Project and updated its post-grunge malaise into the tech-obsessed, tech-scared new millennium. The ever decreasing circles rapidly became a noose to the point that shaky-cam and found-footage became terms which strangled imagination and left viewers dangling in disappointed, unexpected boredom. In general, I’m more forgiving of these films, even those which rely on obscure jump-scares and long periods of quiet before sudden deafening bangs in lieu of genuine tension and frights – as long as the premise is good, the idea interesting, and the filmmakers work with heart rather than greed. But like those long periods of quiet, every so often after a long period of similarly uninspired dross there comes the sudden deafening bang of quality.
The Last Exorcism looks from its trailer, from its premise, like just another found-footage film. It bears all the hallmarks of the sub-sub-genre, and it has its fair share of shaky camera work. However, thanks to some genuinely stunning performances and an honest attempt at tweaking the tropes and conventions and doing something more than just ticking boxes, it ends up being one of the best horror movies of the last few years. We have periods of silence but also genuine tension, and we have jump scares working along side surprising frights and moments that will chill. We have a strong cast and an assured director in Daniel Sturmm who knows exactly when to give a glimpse of what’s lurking inside his box or tricks, and when to rip the lid off.
The film follows a loose documentary style formula, with a disillusioned Minister who has lost his faith plying his trade as a travelling exorcist. Sick of himself, sick of the people he meets, sick of religion, and sick of tricking people into believing he is saving them and thereby perpetuating their beliefs he decides to bring a film crew along on his last exorcism – he is going to show the world that he, and many like him are, a fraud. Accepting a request from a backwater town, he and the crew travel to the Sweetzer family farm to cast out the demon Abalam who, it appears, has taken over their sweet and innocent teenage daughter, Nell. Marcus explains to the camera that he has seen many patterns and similar cases over the years, and as he prepares for his mumbo jumbo and ritual, he tells us how to perform a fake exorcism. Having done his job and headed for home, things take an unexpected turn as Nell somehow tracks him down and is in a worse state than before his exorcism. From this point, the film unleashes all manner of scares and tricks as we are left to second guess motives and next steps. The plot twists and turns, offers a few red herrings, and nothing is clear until the final moments.
What I enjoyed most about the film is the performance of Ashley Bell as Nell. This is clearly a highly talented actress who should go on to future stardom. Her performance is visceral and charged with emotion, filled with subtle little ticks and looks, and she easily conveys naivety, fear, and possessed rage. It’s a performance which reminds me of Weaver in Aliens, Hamilton in T2, and Sheryl Lee in Fire Walk With Me in that it is full blooded, wildly energetic yet focused, and almost takes on a life of its own outside of the confines of the film. She deserved an Oscar nod for her work here, and it’s a shame she wasn’t recognised. Horror fans may be sick to their guts of found footage and exorcism films, but The Last Exorcism is the cream of the crop and shows what can be achieved in this style.
Let us know in the comments what you thought of The Last Exorcism and how it ranks alongside other exorcism movies.