Possessed by suspense, talent, brains and a gothic sense of humor, "The Last Exorcism" makes first-rate use of religious doubt and religious extremism to concoct a novel horror-thriller clever enough to seduce unbelievers while satisfying the bloodlust of its congregation/fanbase. While spasmodic handheld camerawork has become increasingly tiresome as a shock device-cum-convention, it's deployed here with enormous restraint and skill by d.p. Zoltan Honti, and helmer Daniel Stamm knows when to trim the visual frills and stick to the demonic vs. the divine. Expect collection plates to fill up for the Aug. 27 release, and to hear hosannas from Lionsgate.
Employing the by-now-familiar pseudo-documentary device ("REC," "Cloverfield," "Paranormal Activity" and their grandfather, "The Blair Witch Project"), "The Last Exorcism" uses the same shtick to far greater effect, especially in terms of narrative exposition. When Bible-thumping Rev. Cotton Marcus (Patrick Fabian) allows Iris (Iris Bahr) and her unseen cameraman to make a documentary about him, it requires the full telling of his story, and Cotton has a bad case of the Stanley McChrystals: Penitent after years of sham exorcisms and pseudo-fundamentalism, he can't shut up, revealing everything about his shameful past, including his genial contempt for the poor suckers who plead (and pay) for his anti-demonic skills.
Cotton can predict their stories before he even reads their letters, like the one he gets from farmer Louis Sweetzer (Louis Herthum): "My livestock are being killed," it says. "The Devil is inside my daughter. Come, Reverend, and save my farm." So Cotton and Iris and the camera head to New Orleans, ostensibly to snooker another poor sap.
It's a lengthy setup for what any viewer will see is a nightmare on the horizon, and Fabian pulls it off with his charming/smarmy portrayal of Cotton, who is comically resigned to making this possession confession. The screenplay, by Huck Botko and Andrew Gurland, is extremely smart, but Fabian's timing gives it added sparkle, and the actor shifts gears smoothly when things at the Sweetzer farm don't quite turn out the way he expects -- which is an understatement.
"The Last Exorcism" reps a potential breakout for almost all involved. Excepting producers Eli Roth and the "Children of Men" trio of Eric Newman, Marc Abraham and Thomas A. Bliss, few of the principals have extensive credits, especially in the realm of apocalyptic horror. That includes German-born helmer Stamm (whose prior feature was the documentary "A Necessary Death"), who makes fluid use of the potentially problematic technique of making a movie from a cameraman's p.o.v. In this ramshackle aesthetic, the chaos, erratic movement and paradoxically limited field of vision are what convey a visceral sense of unease. The trick is to not induce motion sickness (see "Cloverfield"), and to lend the conceit some integrity and plausibility.
Stamm pulls it off without sacrificing either the rhythms of his movie or his characters, who are well played across the board. Fabian is terrific, and Ashley Bell, as the possessed Nell (or is she?) is the quavering embodiment of defiled innocence. Herthum's Louis, a drunk and a fundamentalist, is quietly menacing, and there's something vaguely "Deliverance"-like about Caleb Landry Jones' portrayal of Louis' son, Caleb. (Why almost every character is named after the actor who plays him or her remains a mystery.)
While the particulars of the story are engrossing and the momentum nonstop, the filmmaking itself provides a certain mischief. During Nell's initial exorcism, replete with seemingly satanic growling and ominous thunder, the film cuts to Cotton outside the house, explaining to Iris how he's executed the special effects he's used during the sham ritual we've just seen. But he has something up his sleeve, and so do the filmmakers: What we're seeing here is the edited version of the movie we're still watching being made, and which -- if you buy the illusion "The Last Exorcism" is perpetrating -- may never get made. So who's the editor of the movie-within-the-movie that we're watching? Could it be ... Satan?