Here's the link to the published version of my review in my column at The Richmond Examiner:
The Last Exorcism (2010)
Daniel Stamm's "The Last Exorcism" is an attempt to capture the same lighting that films like "The Blair Witch Project" and "Paranormal Activity" were able to, and it seems like they were able to by the numbers of this past weekend's box office, but that doesn't necessarily mean the quality of the film is going to measure up to the amount of money it makes. "Paranormal Activity" was already proof enough of that.
"The Last Exorcism" begins with a reverend, Cotton Marcus (Patrick Fabian), telling us about how he became a preacher. He started at a very young age and eventually became a specialist in exorcisms, something that he tells us he didn't really believe in, but that sometimes it was important for someone to think they were having a demon exorcised from them. Upon hearing about a young boy's death during an exorcism, he sets out to capture the fraud of exorcism on camera, so he invites a camera crew with him on his next call.
He answers a letter from a man, Louis Sweetzer (Louis Herthum), who claims that something is wrong with his daughter, Nell (Ashley Bell), and that she has possibly been killing the family cattle at night. Cotton performs the exorcism, but at the same time, the film intercuts scenes of him showing how he is creating certain effects during the ritual, such as demonic voices (done with an MP3 player) and a smoking cross (the smoke is contained in the cross). Thinking that everything is done, he and the documentary crew go to their hotel for the night. Suddenly, Nell shows up and is taken to the hospital by Cotton. After she returns home, it is clear that things are not quite as finished as Cotton thought.
The film starts off in a semi-interesting way. It is presented in a documentary style as it introduces Cotton as a man who is beginning to lose his faith and wants to help set things right by showing the world just how phony exorcisms are. Sadly, this is as interesting as the film gets before it heads into the second half where it goes for cheap scares and becomes all mood and atmosphere with no substance.
The trailers made it look like it had some potential, but in going for a "Paranormal Activity" type film, they were also unfortunately able to mimic the complete lack of scares and tension. Luckily, "Last Exorcism" doesn't feel like it drags on as much as "Paranormal Activity" did. It actually moves along at a fairly brisk pace. If only the filmmakers had added something to this film to set it apart and make it the least bit memorable.
It also doesn't help that some of the climax came off as humorous. As the filmmakers continue to attempt a buildup of tension, the performance from Ashley Bell in her "possessed" state is just silly. Add to that some dialogue that gets some laughs, whether it was intentional or not, and you get a very anticlimactic conclusion.
It had been going around that the ending was the most troubled part of the film. Well, this is partially true, but I think that can be said of the whole second half. Yes, the ending is silly, but so is the fact that no one has a cell phone or attempts to contact the police at any time when things are getting really bad throughout the last half hour.
Aside from the lack of thrills, the last part of the story feels like it was thrown together in a rush as it goes for the shock ending a la the other two films I mentioned earlier. But it's something that we see coming from a mile away because the ending is revealed to us at an earlier point in the second half, taking away any surprise that the filmmakers were going for. Why would they do that to their audience? Don't they want them to be surprised? Perhaps they simply assume that the audience members have seen those other two films and should expect more of the same anyway. With all the buildup the film goes through, I was expecting a bit more than something that looked like it was out of "Rosemary's Baby."
It's not really fair to compare this to the pinnacle of demon films, so I'll just say that once you've seen "The Exorcist," of course all other films of that type are going to pale in comparison, especially if they're going to be this goofy about it. Even if you take "The Last Exorcism" on its own terms, you're going to be in for quite an uneventful movie. It says a whole lot when a documentary about the preacher himself would have been more interesting than one about a girl possessed by a demon. 2/4 stars.