Exorcism movies shouldn’t be rated PG-13, because demons shouldn’t be rated PG-13. They’re supposed to be vile, ghastly, unholy creatures that revel in obscene sacrilege so grotesquely they can test the faith of the most devout. If you can’t show that, you’re wasting our time. There’s a reason no significant demon-possession films were made before The Exorcist, which at the time pushed the still-young R rating as far as it could go and then pushed past that. The Exorcist shocked millions into a new, intensely physicalized awareness of metaphysical evil; it was a game-changer, often imitated, never duplicated, not even close.
That said, The Last Exorcism, which is rated PG-13, gets by for some time on the goodwill earned by its opening sequences. Reverend Cotton Marcus (Patrick Fabian), a slickster with a wholesome Pat Boone handsomeness, has been preaching the good word since he was ten. He’s a lot older now, and less sure that the word is good. Cotton has stayed in the game because he’s good at it, and he provides the faithful with a kind of spiritual catharsis, even if he no longer believes in a divine source. He’s also a showman, working sleight-of-hand tricks into his sermons, and that has helped him become one of the most sought-after exorcists in the Bible Belt. Exorcisms, too, are for Cotton a kind of true lie, cathartic baloney that works on believers.
Cotton is summoned into the boonies by a father concerned about the behavior of his sixteen-year-old daughter Nell (Ashley Bell) — not to mention the livestock that keeps turning up butchered. Cotton invites a two-person camera crew along to document what he considers his last exorcism; in the wake of someone else’s botched exorcism attempt that killed a kid and made the papers, Cotton wants to prove to the world that the ritual is just smoke and mirrors. By extension, I suppose, he might also want to prove that the whole Christian shebang is smoke and mirrors. Richard Dawkins would approve.
Like a few other horror movies (obviously The Blair Witch Project, also Quarantine and Cloverfield), The Last Exorcism passes itself off as found footage of supernatural catastrophe. This works up to a point. There are a few too many instances in which we ask why there’s a camera around, or why a sane crew would still be in the same zip code as the events. Yet we stay with it, because the narrative is shaping up as a rude rejoinder to Cotton’s cynicism. “If you believe in God, you also have to believe in demons,” he says earlier. Well, if there are demons, does that mean God exists? Or are we on our own with demons who can play with us without fear of divine reprisals?
The spookiness has a slow, steady simmer, and Nell (a standout performance by Bell) certainly seems to be possessed; the movie keeps weakly suggesting normal causes for the events, only to be definitively schooled: no, it’s a demon we’re dealing with here. The omens grow louder and bloodier, and unwelcome non-diegetic musical stings begin to litter the soundtrack. Then it comes, the make-or-break ending that had a theater full of teenagers on a Saturday night commenting on its stupidity. I joined them in spirit. The ending is being defended by some critics because the movie doesn’t seem to be headed in that direction, but that sort of audible viewer rejection is a classic sign of breaking faith with the audience. In one stroke, an interesting mockumentary becomes a B-movie, and a cheesy one at that. It’s as if, at the end of one of his sermons, Cotton had shown his parishioners the cards up his sleeve and said that the Bible is just a comforting fiction after all.