NO PEA SOUP IN “LAST EXORCISM”

I don’t know what possessed me to do it, but I went to see “The Last Exorcism,” and although I certainly wouldn’t classify it as a classic thriller like “The Silence of the Lambs,” “Seven,” or “The Ring,” it was surprisingly nicely acted and offered some bona fide chills.

Now before we proceed, you need to know that despite the fact that some people believe “The Exorcist” is one of the most frightening films ever made, I thought it was a complete joke. In fact, I found Linda Blair’s head rotating as she spewed green pea soup on priests very funny. Perhaps the problem is that I absolutely do not believe in demonic possession. That being said, I thought “The Last Exorcism” actually has more to recommend it than “The Exorcist.”

The Rev. Cotton Marcus (Patrick Fabian) is an evangelistic minister who followed in his father’s footsteps and actually began preaching during his father’s services at a very young age. Like many ministers of his ilk, Marcus uses the hell, fire, and brimstone approach and works his congregation up into a frenzy during his sermons. They hang on his every word, and he even says, “I could preach to them my grandmother’s banana bread recipe.”

But after Marcus’s son is born prematurely and he reads about a young boy who was smothered to death during an attempted exorcism, he loses his faith (if he ever had it) and wants to show the world that exorcisms are really a hoax. Thus, he hires a two-person camera crew to film his the final exorcism of his career and expose the practice as a fraud for all to see. He receives numerous requests in the mail from people wanting to him to rid their family members of demons, and he chooses to visit the farm of Louis Sweetzer (Louis Herthum), who believes the Devil has taken over the body of his daughter, Nell (Ashley Bell).

Sweetzer’s eerily quiet farm is located deep in the Louisiana Delta, and it seems someone has been slaughtering the livestock, and Nell’s clothes are consistently covered with blood after each incident. Marcus’s visit to the farm doesn’t begin well because Nell’s weird brother, Caleb (Caleb Landry Jones), makes it very clear that he doesn’t want the minister and his camera crew on the family property.

Sweetzer is firmly convinced that Nell is in the grasp of a demon, but Marcus, who has never put any stock in the validity of exorcisms, thinks the girl needs psychological help and tells Sweetzer, “We need to get your daughter to a psychiatrist. She needs help.”

Being the strict fundamentalist that he is, however, Sweetzer replies, “You have to get that demon out of my daughter, or I will save her soul myself.”

Because Sweetzer is so adamant in his beliefs, Sweetzer decides to humor him and go through the motions of performing a ritual he has repeated many times throughout his career. But as he proceeds through the process, he begins to suspect that evil spirits may indeed have Nell in their grasp, and he ultimately realizes that he and his camera crew may also be in grave danger.

Unlike “The Blair Witch Project,” which I thought was a complete farce, the documentary format with the handheld camera serves this film very well and lends an aura of credence to the story. The tension in the film builds slowly, and this effectively creates a nice sense of suspense. When it finally becomes obvious that something horrifying is going on in Nell’s body, the film offers some truly disturbing scenes as she suffers through a number of ghastly contortions. And throughout it all, we have the minister and the girl’s father on opposite sides of the fence in the matter. In an online interview, producer Eli Roth (“Grindhouse”) explained this conflict.

“It’s really and truly an interesting clash of these two ideologies: both of them want to help this girl, but they are completely unwilling to bend and see any point of view from the other side. Louis is so devoutly faithful to a fault that he believes everything Reverend Marcus tells him. And Cotton Marcus is so scientific that he never believes she’s possessed until it’s too late. Once it’s too late, that’s not true faith. His faith is continually tested in a number of ways and he fails at every turn.”

The acting is surprisingly strong for a film of this nature, and Bell is outstanding in a part that must have been physically exhausting for her. In an online interview, Bell explained how she contributed to some of her character’s actions.

“The night before filming, we were talking about the exorcism scene — the second exorcism — and I didn’t know what was going to be required of me physically, so I prepared for everything. And I was working on some backbends and some things. And I said, ‘Oh, can I show you this? I have a couple of ideas.’ And he said, ‘Yeah, sure.’ And I did it, and he went, ‘Do that. We’re putting that in.’ And it was just so thrilling to have that happen there, or to be able to be on set and figure things out with everyone. It felt like such a collaborative process.”

And in separate interview Fabian explained how he prepared for his role as the minister.

“I read a lot of books about exorcism. Daniel Stamm, the director, gave me some books. I also watched some preacher performances. You know, the televangelists of our day. Tim Haggart, Jimmy Swaggart, those kinds of guys. I think my character, Reverend Marcus, had a lot in common with them, in terms of showmanship, not so much in terms of their mercenary aspect. I think Cotton has more of a heart, and that’s why he’s doing what he’s doing. He hired a film crew to follow him, his last exorcism, so he can hang up his cross, and expose the exorcisms that he’s been doing, and the hocus-pocus that they’ve been.”

I also should mention that Jones is deliciously creepy as Caleb, Nell’s brother, who is totally opposed the Marcus’s visit and makes no secret of it.

“The Last Exorcism” (Give it a score of 6.5.) is proof that a lot of blood need not be present for a film to be frightening. Instead of fake blood, this film relies on the creation of an intellectual fear, and it is quite effective. It’s an above average psychological thriller, but I have seen enough films on this subject to last me forever. Therefore, I think this definitely was my last exorcism film.

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