Ultimately, The Last Exorcism is another scary film based on demon possession. It follows in the dubious tradition of The Exorcist (the 1973 adaptation of William Peter Blatty’s best-selling novel), plus two sequels, Exorcist II (1977) and Exorcist III (1990, with Blatty himself as director), and a prequel, Exorcist: The Beginning (2004)—as well as others, like Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980), even Ghostbusters (1984, featuring a possessed Sigourney Weaver), and The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005).
The Devil is in the details, however, and The Last Exorcism is demonology with a difference. In this case the exorcist—The Rev. Cotton Marcus (Patrick Fabian)—is a phony and a huckster who is following in his daddy’s footsteps, “because, if you believe in God, you have to believe in demons.” Marcus believes in neither and—as in Marjoe Gortner’s revelatory 1972 Marjoe , an exposé of the evangelical circuit—he travels with a film crew and mocks exorcism as a “scam.”
But while the bad reverend is burning his bridges—he says that, in future, “Maybe I’ll sell real estate”—he encounters a young girl, Nell (Ashley Bell), who gives him pause. She’s at first responsive to his magic tricks (for example, he used a hidden wire to rattle a picture frame and secretly plays “demonic” sounds), but then things turn scary. She seems really possessed as the movie moves to a grand Surprise Ending in which Rosemary’s Baby meets Paranormal Activity with filming by The Blair Witch Project .
If the Devil still takes center stage in such possession dramas, it is well to remember what we know about the film that most famously advanced the genre. The “true story” behind The Exorcist featured a disturbed teenager, a boy known as “R,” who supposedly exhibited diabolical feats. In fact, I investigated that case, obtaining a copy of the exorcising priest’s diary and analyzing the events chronicled therein. (See my The Mystery Chronicles , 2004, pp. 14-30.) All of the reliably reported effects—the “trances,” moved furniture, hurled objects, superficial scratches, and other phenomena—were best explained as simple role-playing involving trickery. Indeed, the boy was reportedly observed scratching the worlds “HELL” and “CHRIST” on his chest. It doesn’t appear that the Devil made him do it.
Rating: Two and a half wooden nickels (out of four)