It's a shame that The Last Exorcism isn't nearly as terrifying as it strives to be, because, somewhat unusually for a low-budget horror film, the performances stand strong enough to form the sturdy foundation for a chilling little yarn. Plus, the story takes a novel turn that could have been really effective if the pay-off didn't reek of meddling from a certain Cannibal Holocaust-obsessed producer. It's never a good sign for a horror film when the humor is more effective than the scares, and the filmmakers ultimately fail to conjure up anything more frightening than a few nervous giggles since the "found footage" aspect is bungled so badly it's almost unintentionally funny.
Disillusioned charlatan Reverend Cotton Marcus (Patrick Fabian) has hired a documentary film crew to capture the final exorcism of his career. For years, Reverend Marcus has taken advantage of the faithful and desperate. Now it's time for him to finally come clean. Just as Reverend Marcus prepares to shoot the film that will set the record straight, he receives an urgent letter from desperate farmer Louis Sweetzer (Louis Herthum). A force of powerful evil has taken possession of Louis' beloved daughter, Nell (Ashley Bell), and Reverend Marcus is their last hope for salvation. Up to this point it's been all fun and games -- now things are about to get serious for Reverend Marcus. But while the reverend hails from a long line of distinguished exorcists, a crisis of faith has led him to question his calling. By the time Reverend Marcus comes face to face with the evil that dwells on this picturesque plot of farmland, there will be no question whether evil truly exists, only whether this man of God will have the courage and faith to drive it out of Nell and avoid becoming its next victim.
The star of the show in The Last Exorcism isn't a demon named Abalon, but a priest named Cotton. Cotton is a bundle of huckster charisma; Abalon can only turn a farm girl into a circus contortionist. For an ancient demon, getting upstaged by a charlatan priest would probably be an infernal faux pas punishable by a dip in the lake of fire -- and it doesn't do much to scare an audience expecting "The Blair Exorcist," either. While it's a blast to watch Cotton reveal the tricks of his trade while preaching about banana bread and casing the farmhouse in preparation for the big event, once Abalon comes out to play, the filmmakers' sleight of hand becomes even more obvious than the minister's, destroying any illusion of reality. In subjective filmmaking, the viewer essentially becomes the cameraman, and for that reason it's difficult to use techniques associated with the traditional style of cinema storytelling for the reasons they're regularly employed. Case in point, the barn exorcism -- why is it that in a massive barn with only five people, the cameraman can't get a clear shot of poor Nell as Abalon twists and contorts her body into a horrifying series of inhuman poses? Of course it's because the filmmakers were going for the same brand of less-is-more scares that made films like Alien so effective, but in this particular subgenre that approach simply doesn't work, since the cameraman is ostensibly striving to prove the existence of otherworldly forces by capturing images that would otherwise seem impossible.
And if this subtle realization weren't enough to set off our BS detectors, the filmmakers fumble even further by switching to angles that would prove impossible with one cameraman. Whether the unfortunate result of sloppy filmmaking or simple contempt for the audience, it's precisely this lack of attention to detail that makes The Last Exorcism so ineffective when compared to films like The Blair Witch Project, Paranormal Activity, or that old chestnut Cannibal Holocaust, a film that the producers are so comfortable in assuming that no one has seen that they literally steal its shock ending. The only problem is that in that film, the climax played out under sunlight, with the filmmakers paying careful attention to detail; here it takes place in a darkened forest, with the cameraman turning off his light in a desperate attempt to avoid detection -- a perfect recipe for an unsatisfying, incomprehensible ending. And while the botched conclusion might have been forgivable had director Daniel Stamm and screenwriters Huck Botko and Andrew Gurland managed to work in some genuine scares in other places, each creepy encounter always feels as if it's building to a big crescendo that never actually materializes.
Thanks to Fabian's magnetic performance, some clever editing as he prepares to confront evil, and some supporting players who come off as convincingly naturalistic, it's easy to get suckered into The Last Exorcism early on. But the filmmakers don't mask their deceptions with enough conviction to complete the illusion, making The Last Exorcism one of the weaker entries in the subjective horror canon.