This review refers to the film’s ending without revealing spoilers. However, the comments may make mention of the ending and so you should use caution when scrolling to the bottom if you haven’t yet seen the film.
It’s not often that Alan Partridge is the go-to guy for sage-like wisdom. But in the inaugural episode of his TV chat show, Steve Coogan’s Norwich-based presenter gets it just about right. After a less than successful first show that sees a horse use his studio as a toilet and special guest Roger Moore stuck on a motorway tailback, his television offering is likened to a trip on the Titanic.
“Titanic, Titanic,” Partridge screams back. “People forget, there were hundreds of hours of uneventful, perfectly enjoyable sailing until the Titanic hit the iceberg.” Save for the hundreds of hours bit, he could have been talking about The Last Exorcism. Although that may be underselling it a bit, because The Last Exorcism is a terrific ride for much of its ninety minutes. Funnier and more unsettling than most horror films have been for a while, it comes pretty close to being great.
But having done all the hard work over 80-something minutes, the film undoes much of it in its final two minutes with an ending that seems to belong to an entirely different film. And a not very good one, at that. It’s an iceberg that threatens to sink the film. That it doesn’t is testament to the unexpected thrill of the journey up to that point.
(Spoiler Note: The Last Exorcism does not contain any actual icebergs. Just a metaphorical one.)
I use the word “unexpected” because The Last Exorcism arrives on these shores with refreshingly little fanfare. An “Eli Roth presents” banner ominously proclaiming its horror credentials was all that I had to go on. But as much as Roth’s name must have helped bring the film to screen, it works just as well as a crafty bit of misdirection. Cabin Fever and two Hostel films have made Roth the standard bearer for torture porn, yet The Last Exorcism foregoes the gore and trusts in something much more subtle, and ultimately more rewarding: character.
Indeed, the greatest shock to be had within the film’s first thirty minutes is how funny it is. Director Daniel Stamm uses the faux documentary style that’s become somewhat synonymous with horror these days, but he uses it to great effect. In the first half, it’s a device to warm us to the characters: Patrick Fabian’s Cotton Marcus, a reverend who’s lost his faith and has recruited a camera crew to document the fakery of church sanctioned exorcisms, and the family of Nell Sweetzer, a teenage girl who may or may not be possessed by the Devil.
And that’s it. The film is sparse in the best possible way. There are no redundant characters taking up screen time and no unnecessary subplots to pad things out. All that the first forty-five minutes give us is Fabian’s Cotton, an immensely likeable character, undermining the practice of exorcisms. He sets up some shaky picture frames, plugs in some surround speakers for a growl-y voice from beyond, all to prove his point that what the church is selling is nothing more than smoke and mirrors.
It’s a pretty brave move by the filmmakers too, since what they’re doing is undermining the conventions of an exorcism movie and asking us to laugh at the ridiculousness of it. There’s none of the overt knowingness of New Nightmare or the Screams about it, which, in a way, makes it all the funnier and disarming. Screenwriters Huck Botko and Andrew Gurland will next be seen at the helm of the Will Ferrell vehicle The Virginity Hit, which explains the comedy.
Yet, they’re equally adept at the horror too. The first half’s lightness is balanced with a terrifically dark and disturbing second half. Stamm’s camera sometimes gets too shaky for its own good and the music a little over-the-top (how a recorded-as-it-happens documentary comes to have an orchestral soundtrack is a question that never gets answered), but these are minor niggles next to how tense the final thirty minutes are. There’s only one real jump out of your seat moment, Stamm preferring to build slowly and steadily.
All of which would have added up to a great experience but for that iceberg. Maybe I’m over-playing the ending. Other reviewers might gloss over it and be more forgiving. I can’t.
The Last Exorcism is a four-star film let down by a 1-star ending, a great walk spoiled, to paraphrase Mark Twain. He probably wasn’t as forgiving as Alan Partridge.