A Jeopardy question for the subject of The Last Exorcism might be: “What do you get when you mix Linda Blair with The Blair Witch Project, with some X factors from arty and pulpy filmic corners?” Here at the dog end of summer, a period when we regularly expect meager enticements at the multiplex, The Last Exorcism comes on like a surprisingly intriguing treat, a modest cult film in the making. While by no means a horror classic, the film marshals bold imagination, low-budget resourcefulness (à la the early DIY model, Blair Witch), and knowing self-effacing humor. It’s a genre film on the fringes, poking fun at itself and its ilk, but at the same time finding clever routes to scaring the bejeezus out of us.
It all begins as a mockumentary tracing a snake-charming charlatan exorcist (Patrick Fabian) and exposing the tricks of his trade. Our anti-hero exorcist, who hopes to go into real estate after this final “gig,” goes through his paces in showing the devil the door in a backwoods house in Louisiana. The demon known as Abalam has presumably taken up residence in the flesh of a sweet young home-schooled daughter (Ashley Bell, in a scarily good angelic-cum-devilish performance). Of course, the sham smoke-and-mirrors exorcism is only the beginning of supernatural and/or psychotic doings.
Form and ironic attitude strongly inform the content here. A spare and subtly spooky musical score by Nathan Barr does its job nicely, too, sneaking ghost-like into the sensory package of the film only after it becomes apparent that the cool documentary rationality is being intruded upon by darker forces than our characters bargained for. And Zoltan Honti’s pseudo-detached handheld cinematography assumes an unusually upfront presence. The camera offers a surrogate perspective for the tale’s unseen cameraman, presumably our sole eye on the thickening, sickening scenario.
Into the often-cheesy horror genre the filmmakers have injected a number of clever twists, starting with the very self-limiting device of viewing the story only from the perspective of the observing documentarians, right down to the chilling final shot. They know that we know some genre goosing is going on here. So why is it that the movie gets so far under our skin?