Contrary to what its marketing is selling you, director Daniel Stamm's The Last Exorcism doesn't feature possessed girls scaling walls and ceilings at any point over the course of its 87 minutes. There's certainly plenty of otherwise freaky behavior on display, but until its final moments it's the most grounded found-footage flick since 1999's The Blair Witch Project. In fact, it boasts a steadier camera, a smarter screenplay and a more fascinating lead performance than that film.
The son of a preacher man and an admitted fraud when it comes to performing exorcisms, Rev. Cotton Marcus (Patrick Fabian) is ready to reveal the tricks of the trade and has invited a camera crew to tag along as he opens one last letter pleading for him to remedy someone's supernatural plight.
That someone is Nell Sweetzer (Ashley Bell), the innocent teenage daughter of oft-drunk widower Louis (Louis Herthum). Nell's been waking up in the middle of the night covered in blood and oblivious of the livestock she's apparently killed in her sleep. Nell's brother Caleb (Caleb Landry Jones) tries warning Cotton and company to turn and leave, but our man from Baton Rouge is convinced that it's an open-and-shut case of psychological trauma.
However, after Cotton pulls off his hokey routine and leaves, Nell inexplicably shows up in his hotel room miles away and it becomes apparent that whatever's wrong with her can't be cured with the same old bible-thumping razzle-dazzle.
I struggle to think of a faux-mentary that's had as charismatic a protagonist as Fabian provides here. He's a proud showman who doesn't let a little loss of faith stop him from helping people. When he's funny (often the case at the start), he projects an air of constant performance, and by the time he's scared (towards the end), he runs the gamut from uncertainty and insecurity to dogged determination.
Bell is almost as good as his potentially possessed foil, although much less is asked of her in comparison. When she's not turning on the innocent, shy, grateful rural charm, she's twisting around in impressive feats of convincing contortion and slipping on a perfectly creepy smile. As for the rest of the Sweetzer clan, neither Herthum nor Jones hit any false notes, and their roles end up reversed in ways both sly and sinister.
Zoltan Honti's cinematography is rarely shakier than it needs to be, given that the script calls for the footage to be shot by professionals. [Mild spoiler alert]: How the film manages to cut between two scenes (albeit amusingly) or to be scored throughout feels like a cheat, given how things turn out. (The title suggests as much.)
The final capper feels a bit abrupt once it arrives, widening the scale of Cotton's confrontation where most films would escalate the proceedings by trapping its subjects (or, in this case, makers) in the attic or basement. In hindsight, though, the hints were laid out well by Huck Botko and Andrew Gurland's screenplay. What a change of pace it is to have a horror film with not only some thought behind it but also some more thoughts lingering after it.