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MOVIE REVIEW

The Last Exorcism

‘Last Exorcism’ can’t redeem itself

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By Jesse Singal
Globe Correspondent / August 27, 2010

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Early on in “The Last Exorcism,’’ Cotton Marcus (Patrick Fabian), a handsome, charismatic preacher in Baton Rouge, brags to a documentary crew that once he gets a congregation fired up, he no longer needs to make sense. To prove it, during his next sermon he begins spouting nonsense about banana bread.

The minds behind “The Last Exorcism’’ (count producer Eli Roth among them) apparently feel similarly about horror audiences: work them into a frenzy with slaughtered livestock and demons, and whatever comes next doesn’t matter, because they’ll shout “amen’’ whether you deliver a substantive sermon or simply babble about baking.

The film is presented as found footage, a la “The Blair Witch Project,’’ and the subject of the documentary-in-progress is Marcus, who also performs exorcisms. The twist is that he’s a nonbeliever. Of course, that doesn’t stop him from collecting money to remedy anything that looks like a demonic possession. He’s pragmatic about the service he provides and unconcerned with redemption until he’s rocked by the premature birth of his son and the death of a child during an exorcism performed by another preacher.

Marcus then decides to film his final fake exorcism as a documentary mea culpa. After slapping a Jesus fish on his car, he heads to the farm of alcoholic fundamentalist Louis Sweetzer (Louis Herthum), who’s convinced that his daughter Nell (Ashley Bell) is possessed. With the help of various special effects (including hidden speakers that play unearthly noises), Marcus “exorcises’’ the demon from Nell and collects his money. But it’s soon apparent that something is still very wrong with the girl.

So we’re led to the obligatory, dated-seeming scenes of possession. Nell wanders around creepily. She twists her neck to impossible angles and attacks animals and people. It’s pretty standard issue, and that’s what the film ends up being as well. Which is too bad, because “The Last Exorcism’’ flirts with being much better, or at least with saying something interesting about fundamentalism and familial dysfunction.

The pieces are all there: Marcus’s desire to atone for decades of bamboozling, the utterly screwed-up Sweetzers, weighty questions about the costs of spiritual solace delivered cheaply or disingenuously.

But despite mostly solid performances (particularly by Fabian, who quickly gets you rooting for the slick Marcus) and a satisfying, slow-building tension, things fly apart rather than come together. It’s like director Daniel Stamm and his crew realized they were treading awfully close to making a film with real depth and edge that horror audiences might hate, and they just couldn’t pull the trigger.

This explains a final sequence that spectacularly squanders all the potentially stimulating material from the previous 86 minutes. There may once have been a good and a bad film fighting for the soul of “The Last Exorcism,’’ but in its final moments, cinema’s dark forces triumph emphatically.

Jesse Singal can be reached at jsingal@globe.com.

THE LAST EXORCISM

Directed by: Daniel Stamm

Written by: Huck Botko and Andrew Gurland

Starring: Patrick Fabian, Ashley Bell, Iris Bahr, Louis Herthum, and Caleb Landry Jones

At: Boston Common, Fenway, suburbs

Running time: 88 minutes

Rated: PG-13 (for disturbing violent content and terror, some sexual references, and thematic material)

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