Review in a Hurry: A nasty spirit may (or may not) be causing all sorts of schizophrenic mayhem on numerous Linda Blair wannabes. But producer Eli Roth's The Last Exorcism doesn't reconcile the real identity crisis: a script that can't stop making jokes, undermining the scary stuff with too many giggles and not enough shrieks.
The Bigger Picture: Reverend Cotton Marcus (Patrick Fabian) is a Southern preacher without faith. After years of swindling folks out of their hard-earned savings he's changed his ways and wants to blow the lid off the church's latest cash grab: performing phony exorcisms. So he's hired a documentary film crew to expose the truth (Yep, Exorcism is yet another "found footage" film.)
Cotton meets Louis Sweetzer (Louis Herthum) a Louisiana farmer who's convinced his teenage daughter Nell (Ashley Bell) is possessed by a demon.
Right away, the exorcism feels overly familiar: the shaky bed, the loud un-earthly sounds, paintings falling from the walls (where's the pea soup?). But then (with some clever editing) Cotton is seen a few hours earlier proudly displaying his tools of the trade: hidden speakers, fishing wire and a cross that emits smoke at the push of a button. A run-of-the-mill exorcism suddenly becomes a genuinely funny scene. At the center of it all is Cotton, relishing every chance to show off. He's a charmer who makes a great first impression.
And The Last Exorcism is a lot like Cotton. The film's frankness about the pitfalls of the possession genre has a way of disarming you. But that strength starts to unravel as the story becomes more traditional.
Eventually, the horror portion of the story takes over with Nell possessed for a second time (Cotton hasn't rigged this one). Twisting her body in all manner of that-just-ain't-rightness, newcomer Bell seems to be channeling Jennifer Carpenter (Dexter) from The Exorcism of Emily Rose. And Bell herself is crazy double-jointed, so no CGI, giving the film an aura of authenticity.
Creepy? Yes, but scary? Um…
Once Possessed Nell switches to the mandatory demon voice—a crucial moment—the terror goes south. Sounding about as threatening as a teen cursing for the first time, the voice prompts unintentional laughs. Part of the problem is that unconvincing demon voice, but the bigger issue is that half of the running time has been spent revealing just how silly a film about a satanic teen can be. From there, Exorcism never quite recovers. The big finale (which we won't spoil) feels lifted from another, more generic film.
The 180—a Second Opinion: OK, there is one scary scene, when Possessed Nell gets ahold of a video camera while everyone else is sleeping and goes…exploring. What follows is genuinely unnerving. Demon POV!
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