I am usually careful not to spoil films when I review them, but in this review I am going to spoil The Last Exorcism (and, to some extent, Rec and The Prestige) in order to explain what spoiled The Last Exorcism for me.
It's a film I've been looking forward to for months, largely because of its association with Eli Roth, whose Hostel movies I love (and am planning to explain why in a forthcoming post on here). Discovering that Roth only produced The Last Exorcism rather than directing it dampened my enthusiasm slightly, but he's been promoting it relentlessly on twitter and elsewhere, and the trailers and reviews I'd come across looked very promising.
One of the things I really like about all of Eli Roth's films so far (that is, Cabin Fever and the two parts of Hostel) is the lack of any supernatural element to the horror. I don't mind good supernatural horror - I quite enjoyed Paranormal Activity, for instance - but it doesn't give me the delicious squirmy fear that a good naturalist or realist horror does. So obviously, with The Last Exorcism, I was anxious that it treat its subject matter with the appropriate skepticism and that the horror derive from the very real insanity, fear and violence of pseudo-possession and exorcisms.
And, for the vast majority of the film, that's exactly what it does. It's shot in the handheld mock-doc style of Rec and The Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity. Of those films it's closest conceptually to Rec, an excellent Spanish horror based around 'found footage' from the cameras of a TV documentary crew following firefighters who get inadvertantly quarantined in an old building with a secret. In The Last Exorcism, a two-person camera crew is following Cotton Marcus out to his last exorcism. Marcus is a charismatic evangelical preacher who retains a fondness for his flock despite having gradually lost his faith. He has performed many 'exorcisms' in the past, ridding people of their demons with the help of gadgets and legerdemain. Now he's going to demonstrate how this trickery is achieved by taking on one last case: Nell, a teenage girl from a strict religious background whose family are all dealing with various issues following the loss of their matriarch two years earlier.
As is necessary in order for the movie to work, the characters are all well-played and believable. More could have been made of Nell's brother - it's unclear why he is initially very resistant to the exorcism but mollified when he discovers it's all a fake, and exploring this further would have been interesting. But that observation demonstrates the depth of the characters in this film, especially when compared to a horror film as laughably characterless as The Collector. For the majority of its running time, The Last Exorcism's only weak point is that it regularly betrays its mock-doc premise by adding non-diegetic scare music and offering shots of some scenes from more than one angle. But, though noticeable, these errors of judgement do not spoil the film.
What spoils the film is the ending. It really is a shame because the action is well-paced, the scares are properly creepy and the story is engaging. Marcus investigates the family's extranuclear relationships and discovers there are mysteries other than those of the girl's "possession". And by 80 or so minutes into the film, the mystery appears to have been solved, the girl "exorcised" and the documentary finished.
And then, on their way out of town, a new clue which overturns Marcus' previous explanations surfaces and the crew turns back. And they find that in fact she really was possessed and the locals are forcing her to undergo a medieval ritual involving fire, flesh and chanting. And it's rubbish, and it turns what could have been a really good horror movie into a flop. I hated the ending for the same reason I hated the ending of The Prestige: both films lead you to believe that these characters inhabit the real world, and then suddenly pull the rug from under you and yell Ah! It was magic, after all! Well, that's not an explanation. And these are terrible ways to end otherwise fine films. The Last Exorcism ought to have taken a leaf from the book of Rec: supernatural scares can work if introduced late into a film. But they need to be sufficiently ambiguous to be consistent with what came before. Otherwise you just end up wishing, as I did after watching The Last Exorcism, that they'd deleted the the last 10 minutes or so. Had it finished as the crew left town the first time, the film would have been whole, consistent, tight, and much much better than it actually was.
It's this lost potential that makes The Last Exorcism such a waste of a strong story and some great footage. But I know many reviewers have lamented the ending despite otherwise enjoying it, and hopefully the filmmakers will learn from this and go on to create something that fulfils the potential that The Last Exorcism had.