'The Last Exorcism' Is True Horror Movie Horror

Stephen Graham Jones

The end is what finally keeps this from being a Paranormal Activity: instead of launching the horror into our world, The Last Exorcism signals to us that this is horror movie horror, and thus compartmentalized, ‘safe.’

The Last Exorcism

Director: Daniel Stamm
Cast: Patrick Fabian, Ashley Bell, Iris Bahr, Louis Herthum
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Studio: Lions Gate
UK Release Date: 2010-09-03
US Release Date: 2010-08-27

In a movie, no matter the genre, you will always become that which you were just pretending to be. So, for this charlatan exorcist in The Last Exorcism, exposing exorcisms as fraudulent for a documentary crew, what do you think? In a horror movie, will he finally have to become a real exorcist, or might he get a pass, just get to grin his way out of the shot and go back to his happy life?

But I don’t want to spoil anything for you, either.

Most of the other reviews I checked out, they all said the same thing: don’t read this review you’re already reading, don’t watch the trailer, don’t even look at that terrifying poster, just go see the movie. Translate that how you will, but the way I take a suggestion like that is that I’m being warned this is a gimmick movie, that it’s got some twist I never saw coming, a reveal that can ruin everything.

About which I’ll try not to say yes or no. Because I’m not a spoiler.

However, what you really come to a review for with a movie like this, it’s not synopsis -- you will watch the trailer, and all you need’s there -- it’s the answer to the only question that finally matters with horror: Does it scare you? Is this the Paranormal Activity of this year? Is it up there with Blair Witch and the original Amityville Horror and (sacrilege, sacrilege), what about The Exorcist itself? Does The Last Exorcism not only have the necessary jump-scares and gross-outs we all expect from an exorcism movie, but does it also instill that Omen-kind of supernatural dread that we take with us and can’t shake?

Not quite, no. Sorry. Or, to say it better, I’m writing this in my basement right now. And, after The Exorcism of Emily Rose, and especially Paranormal Activity, my basement was very off-limits.

I don’t want to take too much away from The Last Exorcism, though. It’s got creepiness, jump-scares, a bit of gross-out, and even some animal cruelty. More than that, though, it knows its own genre very well, and is keenly aware that if the exorcist isn’t suffering some crisis of faith that can parallel the possession going on, such that solving one means overcoming the other, then the movie’s a failure, and if this case can be the ‘last job’ like in The Professional, then all the better.

More than that, even, I suspect The Last Exorcism is doing for exorcism/possession movies what Scream did for the slasher. Not all at once like Scream did, but still, this wink-wink behind-the-curtains look at the theater and commerce of the exorcism industry, it’s slick, and works to, if not deconstruct all the other exorcism movies that have come before, at least lay bare their conventions while -- and this is important -- still legitimately trying to scare us. Repossessed and its hallowed brethren, it poked essentially the same kind of fun at the genre, but with completely different intent. The Last Exorcism, when it’s poking fun, it’s finally to set us up for the real thrill, the real scare.

Everybody involved is more than competent, too: the bible-thumping dad Louis Herthrum, Patrick Fabian as the lantern-jawed used car salesman of an exorcist, Ashley Bell as the innocent possessed girl. Strong performances, especially from Herthrum, giving his knowing Thomas Magnum nods into the camera to remind us that this is a handheld affair, folks: it’s real, it’s real. It's all nicely directed by Daniel Stamm, continually giving us little visual cues to other movies (Omen, Poltergeist, etc.), which serve to make us trust him, let us believe he’s done his homework, studied up.

And then there’s the end -- I could mumble the title of one seminal horror film here and give it away -- which itself is fun in that, while you’re watching it, you’re having to go back through the movie, do that Sixth Sense retrofit, where you have to check, make sure everything’s lining up. And it does, it's written that tightly. However, it’s also the case that the end is what finally keeps this from being a Paranormal Activity: instead of launching the horror into our world, The Last Exorcism signals to us that this is horror movie horror, and thus compartmentalized, ‘safe.’

However, The Last Exorcism also manages to create -- pioneer, maybe -- this nifty little dynamic, this neat internal logic where, if you don’t buy into the scare, then you’re marking yourself as a potential target, a victim. A logic that, right up until the end, which I’m still not going to spoil, holds fast, is quite effective, and can get you squirming. And, finally, that’s what we go to the horror movie for, right?


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