Despite their popularity, exorcism movies are extremely difficult to pull off. Not only are there religious issues that have to be carefully dealt with in order to avoid offending any particular faith, but the end product will also inevitably be compared to William Friedkin’s The Exorcist. Naturally, it’s hard to follow up on one of the best films of all time.
Despite this, there are some brave filmmakers out there that have accepted this challenge and attempt to add their own unique spin on Exorcism stories instead of just regurgitating what’s already popular. While none of them have ever surpassed Friedkin’s classic, every once in a while we’re blessed with a movie that reminds us there are still new and creative ways to depict a demonic presence on the big screen. One of my personal favorites of these is Daniel Stamm‘s The Last Exorcism, which is now celebrating its 10th anniversary.
Horror was in a different place back in 2010, with found-footage once again on the rise after the insane popularity of the Paranormal Activity franchise. Back then, these movies were seen as consistently safe investments for studios and not just an opening for independent filmmakers with tight budgets. That’s why it wasn’t all that surprising when Eli Roth became attached to produce an ambitious little found-footage project about a faithless preacher being forced to confront the darker side of his own profession.
For those who haven’t seen it, The Last Exorcism is framed as a documentary about Reverend Cotton Marcus (Patrick Fabian) and his attempts to expose the fraudulent nature of exorcism rituals. When he’s contacted by a farmer worried that his daughter, Nell (Ashley Bell), might be possessed, the documentary crew accompanies Marcus to the heart of Louisiana for what they believe will be another case of religious fervor gone wrong. Unfortunately, it’s clear that there’s more to Nell’s condition than meets the eye, and Marcus begins to doubt his own convictions as the situation becomes more and more horrific.
The ambiguous nature of Nell’s alleged possession is only made more engrossing by the found-footage approach, with the “documentary” going back and forth on whether or not there might be a supernatural element at play. Marcus’ casual debunking of traditional Exorcism tropes grounds the movie in reality while the Louisiana setting helps with the atmosphere. The Bible Belt backdrop is also thematically appropriate, considering that this is a scary yarn about the merits of faith versus reason.
Despite the film devoting a sizable chunk of its runtime to character development and thoughtful conversations instead of cheap scares, audiences actually really seemed to like it. The Last Exorcism ended up grossing over $67 million on a $1.8 million budget, and even critics seemed to enjoy it, with many of them praising the believable characters and claiming that it was one of the best horror movies released in 2010.
Having grown up in a deeply religious setting myself, I really appreciate this movie’s commitment to accurately depicting faith and creating a truly three-dimensional main character. While Reverend Cotton is technically a con-man, he’s still trying to help people and is ultimately a really likable protagonist, which is a rare feat in a found-footage project.
Of course, part of this is due to a compelling performance by Patrick Fabian, though the acting here is great all around the board. Ashley Bell obviously stands out as the movie relies on her for both the scares and dramatic moments, making her chaotic role the most demanding of the bunch. It’s hard not to sympathize with Nell’s innocent farm-girl persona, but she’s still capable of absolutely terrifying viewers when the supposed entity takes over.
Apparently, Stamm took an unorthodox approach when preparing the actors, requiring Fabian to write and perform real biblical sermons and even framing Bell’s audition as an actual exorcism. Later on, he even incorporated the actress’s extremely flexible body into her role, adding even more freaky moments without the need for heavy effects work. This commitment to telling a believable story makes a huge difference, and the end result is a memorable film that stands on its own even in an overcrowded genre.
In the end, what I appreciate the most about The Last Exorcism is how it doesn’t hold your hand, leading to a terrifying finale more reminiscent of a Lovecraftian tragedy rather than any traditional Exorcism tale. It might not be for everyone, but I certainly admire how the movie is able to leave so many loose ends while still having a satisfying conclusion. The ending is somewhat marred by an unnecessary 2013 sequel, though it had little involvement from the original team and isn’t even presented as found-footage.
While I always take these stories with a sizable grain of salt, it’s worth mentioning that Eli Roth claims that the movie’s post-production was plagued with strange happenings, especially during work on bonus features for the home video release. According to him, certain crew members requested that a recorded prayer be played before interviews, and the DVD itself is reportedly blessed (not so sure about the Blu-ray, though). I obviously can’t confirm any of this, but it’s fun to think that a scary movie can be so well made that it starts to affect real life, even if only because the story freaked out the folks who were working on it.
In any case, even after 10 years, this gem of a movie is just as effective now as it was on release, not only as a horror experience but as a nuanced take on morality and faith. That ending might not please everyone, but I still think this is worth a watch even if you’re tired of Exorcism movies. Just be sure to hang a crucifix somewhere before pressing play. Just in case.