‘Blair Witch’ can go to hell — ‘Last Exorcism’ puts fright in the pseudo-doc

STEVE WARREN  | Contributing Writer thinhead@mindspring.com

The Last Exorcism
CAST OUT | A charlatan exoricst (Patrick Fabian) encounters the real deal in Nell (Ashley Bell) in this Eli Roth shocker with a gay twist.

3.5 out of 5 Stars
Patrick Fabian, Ashley Bell,
Caleb Landry Jones.
Rated PG-13. 90 mins.
Now playing at wide release.

Pseudo-documentary horror movies seem to succeed in inverse proportion to their quality: the totally unwatchable Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity made gazillions, while the far superior Cloverfield was only a modest hit. So expect The Last Exorcism to sink like a stone.

Produced by Eli Roth and directed by Daniel Stamm, Exorcism has serious flaws, including an ending that won’t please everyone, but when it’s good, which is most of the time, it’s terrific.

Patrick Fabian stars as Cotton Marcus, the subject of the documentary-in-progress. He followed in the footsteps of his preacher father from age 10, and the style, incorporating card tricks, and exorcisms, is the family sideline (his father has done about 150).

The premature birth of his son triggered a crisis of faith for Cotton, who continued to function on automatic pilot. He felt his exorcisms benefited people psychologically — as long as they believed actual demons were leaving their bodies they were cured — but following an incident two years ago where a child died during one in Texas got Cotton out of the business.

As a parting gesture, he’s making a documentary to expose exorcism as a scam. For his last one, Cotton and a two-person crew head to Ironwood, La., where superstitious drunk Louis Sweetzer (Louis Herthum) thinks his 16-year-old daughter Nell (Ashley Bell) is possessed and has been killing their livestock.

Cotton turns on his oily charm for Louis, Nell and Nell’s hostile brother Caleb (Caleb Landry Jones), while privately exposing his tricks to the camera. He performs the exorcism, taking the alleged demon into his own body and freeing Nell from possession. Happy ending — except the movie is only half over.

As strange things start happening for real, The Last Exorcism becomes a whodunit, with Satan one of the suspects. There’s even a gay twist along the way to an ending that doesn’t tie up all the loose ends. I would have liked a few more questions answered before the perfect final shot, but it’s still a hoot.

One major drawback is the lack of accents on the major characters, especially those who live in the Louisiana backwoods. Even in Baton Rouge it’s unlikely the congregation would trust a preacher who sounds like a Yankee — even if he is second-generation and turns it on a little in the pulpit.

With that exception, the acting is very good, especially that of Bell, who will erase Linda Blair from your memory for all time with her physical and emotional performance as Nell.

While there are some of the requisite shaky-cam shots, the fact that professional filmmakers are supposed to be behind the video camera keeps The Last Exorcism from causing nausea or otherwise being hard to watch. (Cat lovers will have a problem with one scene.)

The wit and subtle satire of the first half and the mystery and suspense of the second combine to make this a pleasant late-summer surprise that deserves to stay around until Halloween.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition August 27, 2010