If I remember The Last Exorcism ten years from now it's going to be as one of the most spectacular dropping of the balls of literally any film I've seen in my entire life. No hyperbole. I'm talking ever. One almost has to write two reviews to do the film justice; one for the first 95 minutes and another entirely different review for the very last scene. Right up until the final revelation I was honestly thinking, "hey, this ain't half bad!" I was ready to declare it one of 2010's better horror films and give it a mild recommendation. But then... that ending. The credits were met with a chorus of boos, and as much contempt as I usually have for the adolescent rabble that attends horror movies, this time we found ourselves in perfect alignment. Boo indeed.
But as I said, the movie actually gets off to a pretty decent start. It's basically The Exorcist from the point of view of the exorcist himself rather than the family, spiced up with The Blair Witch Project's "found footage" aesthetic and Southern Gothic settings. Reverend Cotton Marcus is an preacher-turned-skeptic who decides to follow up on one final exorcism request and film it to show what a sham the whole process is, so he takes off into deep Louisiana to meet a redneck father who believes his daughter to be possessed by a demon. The exorcism begins smooth and easy, but, as I'm sure you can predict, it gradually becomes creepier and more inexplicable than Cotton could have initially imagined.
It sounds generic enough, but the film actually manages to avoid two common pitfalls of contemporary horror: one, its protagonist is unusually complex, nuanced, and well-acted by the standards of the genre. Compared to the inert heroes of the Paranormal Activity films (let alone the soulless warm bodies that populate slasher flicks), Cotton Marcus is someone you can become legitimately invested in. And two, the film has a creepy slow burn to it that almost entirely eschews sudden loud noises and jump scares. The most horrific moments are quietly unsettling and eerie, which I find much more menacing than something suddenly leaping out of the dark with a bloodcurdling shriek.
Unfortunately, The Last Exorcism brutally annihilates all subtlety in its closing moments. (MAJOR SPOILERS INCOMING.) When I said above that the film's plot was basically The Exorcist, I wasn't being totally forthcoming. It's actually a mix of The Exorcist and Rosemary's Baby. You see, the daughter in question is not just possessed but also pregnant, and Cotton's attempts to identify the father yield no results. So in the end he and his documentary crew return to the farm and find a Satanist redneck-hippie bonfire in the forest, with everyone in town in on the conspiracy. The Satanists tie the girl up and pull a demon baby from her vagina, revealing that the father couldn't be found because it was a demon all along, then the bonfire rises high up into the sky, Cotton runs towards it with his cross out shouting that the power of Christ compels them, and one of the Satanist hicks kills the cameraman.
It's not that such an absurd, cartoonish scene has no place in cinema, but tacked onto the end of this mostly subtle movie it was like if Frost/Nixon had ended with the final battle from Avatar. The two things just did not go together, and the end result was hilarious and awful. And despite what Lost fanboys in denial will tell you, endings do matter, a lot. Ever listen to someone tell a joke then forget the punchline? It's enraging. The Last Exorcism feels just like that, and the moronic final scene left me sorry I'd wasted my time with the film in the first place. I hated it.
1 Star out of 5