Over the past few years, hand-held horror movies seem to have become a fairly frequent occurrence, often achieving varying degrees of success. On one hand we’ve seen such superb and wonderfully terrifying examples as Rec (2008) and Paranormal Activity (2007). Equally, however, some haven’t quite delivered in the same way; 2008’s Cloverfield and 2010’s Rec 2 both highlighting, albeit in different ways, just how easy it is to get things wrong when shooting in this style.
In the case of Daniel Stamm’s The Last Exorcism (2010), we find a film that embodies many of the qualities that make this genre so effective, yet also manages to implode quite spectacularly due to a few misguided steps.
The Last Exorcism takes the form of a documentary following preacher and ‘exorcist’ Cotton Marcus – played superbly by Patrick Fabian – as he sets out to show the world the tricks of the exorcist trade and to reveal the fraudulent and exploitative ways of the church. He does so by heading out to meet the Sweetzer family, whose daughter Nell (Ashley Bell) appears to be possessed. Somewhat predictably, this doesn’t quite go to plan.
Although the plot and exposition of the film are both highly derivative and explicit in their influences, for large sections The Last Exorcism works beautifully, slowly building up the tension and creating an atmosphere of suspense in a way that’s comparable to Oren Peli’s Paranormal Activity. The fear manifests itself in the form of anticipation, rather than what is actually happening on-screen. Examples of this technique can be seen as Cotton and his team are following an apparently possessed Nell through the house. As she moves into different rooms and out of the camera’s sight, one can clearly draw comparisons with the style employed in the likes of The Blair Witch Project (1999) and Rec. Similarly, the scene in which she is alone behind her locked bedroom door, despite the sounds of another voice and a baby crying being clearly audible, utilise the documentary style to maximum effect, making for extremely unsettling viewing .
The quality of the performances from the key cast members also adds to the tense atmosphere, with no sign of over-acting or any attempt to compensate for the film’s carefully understated tone. Ashley Bell’s performance as Nell deserves particular praise for its vulnerability and sensitivity, making the moments of her possession all the more frightening. It is this obvious technique of “less-is-more” in relation to the cast’s performances that undoubtedly provides The Last Exorcism with its creepiest moments, allowing the tension to unnerve its audience rather that throwing buckets of blood and gore at them.
How frustrating it is then, when in The Last Exorcism’s final act it decides to abandon every element that had worked up to this point, in favour of an ending which is so preposterously bad that it essentially destroys all of the groundwork which was laid before. The realism of the single camera style of shooting is hurriedly discarded to make way for a number of cut-away and reaction shots that simply don’t add up or make plausible sense if the action were truly being captured by one camera. Furthermore, the ‘twist’ in the plot really is laughable.
I won’t reveal the ending here, for anyone that is thinking of seeing the film should not be put off by its abysmal final 10 minutes, but when you eventually come away from The Last Exorcism, the prevailing feeling is one of disappointment at what could have been, rather than appreciating just how good a film it was for around eighty minutes. Such a shame, as given a little more thought, The Last Exorcism could well have been one of the horrors of the year.