After the release of The Blair Witch Project in 1999, it was to be expected that a slew of copycat 'found footage' horror films would follow in it's phenomenally successful footsteps. Although not the first horror picture to utilise this style (Ruggero Deodato's Cannibal Holocaust perhaps?), it makes sense, you can get away with the cheap DV consumer grade aesthetic with some decent sound editing and some good scares, whilst keeping costs to a minimum. Not every horror film has to look like The Shining to be effective, it just needs to scare the life out of you. Surprisingly enough, it's taken ten years for Blair Witch's successful model to be replicated, with the release of last year's Paranormal Activity, another micro-budget film that made great use of it's minimalist (but meticulous) direction. Other filmmakers have used this 'mockumentary' template as a means to provide a degree of verisimilitude to their horror movies, but more often than not it tends to result in a lazy shorthand for avoiding any firm directorial choices in the movement of the camera (the 'dropping the camera' shot, when the cameraman character gets killed has long since become a cliche, as has the running through the woods/street/house shot...), although both Matt Reeve's Cloverfield and Neill Blomkamp's District 9 have utilised a similar style more successfully in the scifi genre.
Unfortunately the aforementioned cliches are present and correct in Daniel Stamm's The Last Exorcism, a tonal mess that proves mostly ineffective in delivering either scares or (intentional?) comedy.
Cotton Marcus (Patrick Fabian) is a fraudulent preacher who exploits the faith of middle Americans ever-ready to believe in the more superstitious facets of Christianity. He justifies his job to the camera crew he allows to follow him on one of the many 'exorcisms' he performs, by claiming that as long as the people he's exploiting believe he's exorcised the demon they believe in, then he's left them with a peace of mind they wouldn't have had without his well-remunerated charade.
Gleefully showing them the tools of his trade - a smoking crucifix, an ipod loaded with hundreds of demon growls, fishing line to make pictures rattle - Marcus sets out to perform an 'exorcism' on a recently bereaved young girl whose father thinks the slaughtering of his livestock is a result of her being demonically possessed, a belief Marcus is keen to encourage.
As Marcus is set up as a fraud from the start, any sense of tension is immediately removed and the first 'fake' exorcism is played mostly for (forced) laughs. Of course we're aware straight away that this is a girl in need of a 'real' exorcism, a scene that ultimately never materialises. It's a film full of empty promises - any interesting ideas the script suggests are quickly swept away - is her 'possession' merely a physiological expression of abuse at the hands of her father? Have the pillars of her community seen Rosemary's Baby too many times?
The perfomances delivered by the actors are never convincing enough for us to believe this is really happening, which negates the faux documentary style from the start.
The film never begins to explore the struggles with faith that William Friedkin did so well back in 1973, and barely executes even the cheap scares that take the place of anything more meaningful. With an ending so abrupt and ridiculous too, The Last Exorcism ultimately fails to deliver even on the most basic level of a horror film, it's just not scary, and with Friedkin's The Exorcist still so profoundly terrifying after almost 40 years, it also feels totally unnecessary.