Take one disenchanted preacher, leave him at a farm in the middle of nowhere and add one conveniently shark-eyed girl who seems to be possessed by Satan. Cut the power, set the camera to shaky and leave to simmer for 90 minutes. Eli Roth knows this horror recipe better than most and in The Last Exorcism, he and director Daniel Stamm cook up a decent flick which plays on religious doubt to great effect.
Mixing well-practiced horror machinery with subtle and probing character development, this tale of a priest trying to expose the fraud of his church by filming his final exorcism is good but not quite great. The German director deliberately creates a creepy ambiguity, but ultimately it is this mystery which eventually swallows the film to some extent. Some audiences may well be drawn further in by this, but those who enjoy a twist that can be explained will be slightly disappointed. Yet an intersting angle and a good lead from Patrick Fabian as the bright but cynical priest distracts us from a plot which has not so much been well beaten, but ploughed up and turned into a motorway.
From the opening scenes which paint an engaging account of Cotton Marcus – a charismatic preacher who is adored by his parishioners – The Last Exorcism takes us into the heart of Christian backwater USA (the demented girl in question inevitably lives on a farming outpost). But the crux of the piece lies in the shifting attitudes of the initially sceptical camera crew who begin to struggle as events get out of hand. This is instantly recognisable as “recovered footage” territory, but unfortunately Stamm and Roth seem to fall into the pitfall that can often weaken such films: a grand understating.