The Last Exorcism
Directed by Daniel Stamm
In the summer of 1977, four years after its predecessor had landed with the impact of a meteor on American culture, John Boorman's Exorcist II: The Heretic floundered at the box office so badly that it looked like curtains for the entire franchise. But instead, since 1990, there has been one more official sequel, two versions of the same prequel by different directors, various low budget knockoffs, and 2005's The Exorcism of Emily Rose , a combination Exorcist rip-off and courtroom drama. And this despite the fact that, as the A.V. Club's Nathan Rabin has pointed out, "the only theatrical release of an Exorcist movie that's made any money since 1973 was 2000's re-release of William Friedkin's original." Thirty-seven years on, The Exorcist endures, not because it's the flagship of a proud brand but because it's the ur-text for a whole subgenre, the Nosferatu of what we can now safely call exorcist movies with a lowercase e.
Directed by Daniel Stamm, and produced by Eli Roth, The Last Exorcism is a respectful but forward-looking attempt to rewrite Friedkin's rules, to establish new mythologies. Jettisoned for the first time ever in an exorcist movie are Catholics, absentee parents, and distracting subplots set in Africa and the Middle East. Gone are the celibate priests. And while knowing winks are made both to the Friedkin ("Catholics get all the press because they got the movie") and to the underrated Boorman (drawings of a man on fire that foreshadow later events), the style and updated mockumentary conceit are very post-Blair Witch. (So is the movie's killer viral marketing campaign utilising Chatroulette.)
A Baton Rouge-based Elmer Gantry (Big Love's Patrick Fabian) plans to come clean and expose the rampant fraud in the exorcism trade. He invites an indie documentary crew—one camerawoman, and one sound man who, ingeniously, we never see—to shoot his final sham performance in a backwoods hamlet that in production design terms is three parts Flannery O'Connor, one part Deliverance. Zoltan Honti's handheld camera can be unnecessarily jerky in places (it's an amateur documentary, we get it) but he's skilled at light and shadow and makes beautiful impressionistic use of video's blurry attributes during The Last Exorcism's climactic nighttime bonfire scene.
Younger horror fans weaned on the Roth oeuvre or the Saw series may be disappointed by The Last Exorcism's relative visual reticence, its frequent refusal to show us too much too soon, although there will be blood soon enough. Anchored by judicious pacing and strong performances (in addition to Fabian, Ashley Bell stands out as the requisite demonically possessed teenage girl), The Last Exorcism isn't so much groundbreaking as classical. And that's a compliment.
Opens August 27