This Week’s Popcorn

‘The Last Exorcism’ speaks of the devil

2 & ½ popcorns

By Michael S. Goldberger
Special to the Observer

Smartly taking you into its confidence, director Daniel Stamm’s “The Last Exorcism” forgoes many of the hokey mechanisms that can compromise this horror sub-genre. Too bad screenwriters Huck Botko and Andrew Gurland couldn’t come up with something better than the cop-out finale that concludes the otherwise well-crafted mockumentary.

Coming clean from the get-go with a ploy about not being able to kid a kidder, Louisiana minister and exorcist Cotton Marcus explains his raison d’être. Hailing from a long line of respected demon chasers, the admitted fraud contends he has nonetheless satisfied a psychological need in many troubled souls. But enough is enough. He quits.

Hence, to finalize and commemorate his farewell, the charlatan charmer agrees to allow his last Devil expulsion to be filmed. Randomly choosing from the latest urgent missives requesting his services, he is soon headed for Louis Sweetzer’s rural Louisiana farm. It seems livestock is being slaughtered.

No biggie. It’s almost always livestock, relates Patrick Fabian’s splendidly realized Cotton Marcus, a man apparently as comfortable in his skin as he is in his professional rationale. All the same, he is jarred a tad when, upon entering the grounds, a young man assaults his van with a rock. Uh oh, it’s Caleb (Caleb Landry Jones), Louis’ son.

But no, he’s not the problem, the highly religious farmer clarifies. It’s Nell, his naïve and innocent 16-year-old finely emoted by Ashley Bell. Things have been tough ever since Mom died of cancer. Mistrustful of the secular world, the widower has been homeschooling his children. No rocket scientists will emanate here. Just a possessed kid.

Naturally, or perhaps supernaturally, things are not what they seem. Or, maybe they are. In any case, we’re not going to know right off, and soon find ourselves inching toward seat’s edge, captured in an anticipatory web superbly woven by director and cast. Louis Herthum’s portrayal of the farmer is a tragic study in anguished desperation.

He is a perfect case in point, a prime patsy for those who feed on humankind’s superstitions and irrational fears. And therefore, per Minister Marcus’s rationalization, the only recourse is to humor him with all the Booga Booga he needs to believe that Satan has been excised from his poor, besieged daughter. In other words, it’s show time.

Here the camera cuts away to the van for a candid stage whisper from Rev. Marcus as he regales us with his box of tricks, from a smoking cross to a sophisticated sound system that conveniently slips right up his sleeve. But we correctly suspect that it’s not going to be a simple case of spiritual prestidigitation this go-round. The cauldron has been stirred.

To tell too much more of the story could mean my own exorcism from the Film Critics Coven. Suffice it to note, what follows is a horror variation on a drawing room whodunit, with occasional splats of blood to remind us that something or other sure means business. No one among the small cast escapes suspicion.

Our curiosity is primarily piqued by Rev. Marcus’s confident demeanor. He has let us in on his secret. Yet almost as beguiling is how Mr. Sweetzer buys into the exorcism thing, hook, line and incantation. What’s his story? Plus, if it isn’t Beelzebub making things go bump in the night, someone else sure is. A seed of doubt is planted.

This is, after all, a horror flick, and sooner or later the real fright factor is going to jump out and rear its ugly manifestations right in our face. But it’s in no hurry, and while slowly unraveling his plot, director Stamm uses the time to say a few poignant things about the evils of superstition. Still, we are on guard. Maybe he’s setting us up, jiving us.

There’s no relaxing. The low-key tension builds so thick you can cut it with the proverbial knife … probably a dirty, rusty, blood-dripping knife that’s being wielded by whatever or whoever is killing the cows. Then again, the enlightened clergyman’s regular assurances that there is a rational answer to all this eeriness have us waffling.

The isolated, creepy location, replete with spooky farmhouse and outbuildings, heightens the angst. Nevertheless, only the most gullible — like the folks who don’t believe I was born in America — will really think this is a legitimate documentary. But unlike the “Blair Witch Project” (1999), it doesn’t hinge on that. We’ve tacitly agreed to play along.

Yet an inherent oxymoron plagues this movie. If it’s being shown in theaters, then evidently the reverend and his crew, and not a boasting, film-confiscating Satan, survived to tell the story. We suspect the truth will storm in from left field. But alas, our patience and anxiety prove for naught when “The Last Exorcism” settles for a contrived ending.

“The Last Exorcism,” rated PG-13, is a Lionsgate release directed by Daniel Stamm and stars Patrick Fabian, Ashley Bell and Louis Herthum. Running time: 87 minutes.