by Paul Knoll
OK, horror fanboys, start hating. Really, who here gets the whole Eli Roth thing? Yeah, yeah, his little Thanksgiving thingy in Grindhouse was a hoot, but what's he done for us full-length-wise? Look at Cabin Fever and Hostel; despite the desire to be smart and hip, they came off like hacked parodies of better horrors, gore-drenched cinematic schlock riddled with half-realized narratives and tired payoffs. And let's call Hostel II what it was — a vulgar exercise in violence and hokum that'll no doubt embarrass and haunt Roth all the way to his grave.
The Last Exorcism — which is only produced by Roth, but that's enough — rides TV's fresh-free wave of mock-doc reality shows that "debunk" paranormal activity, sorta like Ghost Hunters meets Fact or Faked: Paranormal Files. Cotton Marcus (who is actually played with panache by Patrick Fabian) is a Baton Rouge minister and one-time child evangelist. Marcus teams up with a documentary film crew to show tricks of his trade — namely using sound effects, sleight of hand and good-ol' fashioned religious histrionics — while performing an exorcism. (Are these intentional nods to 1972's Oscar-winning doc Marjoe, which exposed one-time child evangelist Marjoe Gortner?) Marcus is the good guy motivated by a news clipping in which a child died while being exorcised.
Enter the vérité-ish handheld camerawork, and the setup of The Last Exorcism is surprisingly engaging. Marcus randomly chooses the Sweetzer family from letters he receives of folks looking for an exorcist. But when he and crew enter the family home, it's quickly apparent that something's very odd about the Sweetzers. Lewis Sweetzer has gone all fundamentalist Christian in the wake of his wife's death; he pulled his kids from school, banned secular music, distrusts modern medicine and stopped attending church. The first two-thirds here keep you guessing has to whether or not daughter Nell is possessed or just a victim of dad's abusive religious fervor. (We get it!)
The real action starts in the last 20 minutes when Nell is suddenly speaking in tongues and contorting her body into Cirque du Soleil-like positions. That's all neat and fun and stuff, but we've seen it all before, and the motion-sick camerawork ruins most frights by obscuring everything behind what could be a Vaseline-smeared lens. Writers Huck Botko and Andrew Gurland lift liberally from a half-dozen genre yarns: The Exorcism of Emily Rose, Rosemary's Baby, and Cannibal Holocaust, etc. The Last Exorcism leaves you unsatisfied; it's that same hollow feeling that rises each time you see Eli Roth's name creep into credits.
Paul Knoll writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.