When The Blair Witch Project became an out-of-nowhere phenomenon more than a decade ago, one of the most startling developments was how few attempts there were to rip it off. While the “fake-umentary” format had been successful for comedies like This Is Spinal Tap and the like, few other filmmakers seemed to recognize — like Blair creators Eduardo Sanchez and Daniel Myrick — what a natural fit it was for horror. The grammar of conventional cinema had made it too hard to really unnerve a contemporary audience; the unsteady cameras and unpredictable editing rhythms of faux reality could goose viewers in a completely new way.
Yet it took most of a decade for copycats to emerge: the Spanish thriller [REC], remade in America as Quarantine; Cloverfield; George Romero’s Diary of the Dead; The Fourth Kind; and, of course, last year’s surprise hit Paranormal Activity. It’s a brilliant formula for those who know how to do it right, but The Last Exorcism shows what happens when you take the basic building blocks but forget to deliver anything, you know, scary.
The set-up isn’t a bad one: Cotton Marcus (Patrick Fabian), a Baton Rouge, La., minister, is the subject of a documentary being made by filmmaker Iris Reisen (Iris Bahr) and her cameraman. Raised from childhood to the ministry, Cotton has undergone a crisis of faith that has left him more of a showman/con artist for his flock than true man of God.
He’s particularly skeptical of supposed demonic possessions, and — having performed more than a few “fake-sorcisms” himself — he wants to bring a camera crew along to document one of his debunking, purely placebo-effect performances. But when he gets out to the remote Louisiana farm where 16-year-old Nell (Ashley Bell) is suspected by her father (Louis Hertham) of being under the influence of an evil spirit, Cotton begins to wonder whether this case is the real deal.
Screenwriters Huck Botko and Andrew Gurland went faux-doc for their comedy Mail Order Wife a few years ago, and as long as The Last Exorcism is maintaining a lighter, more satirical tone during the film’s first half, it’s on pretty solid ground. Fabian turns in a nimble performance as the preacher turned huckster trying to justify his self-serving — and financially lucrative — nonsense as a public service, and there’s a funny nod to The Exorcist in which Cotton laments the focus on Catholic Church-sanctioned exorcisms because “they got the movie.” The scene in which Cotton sets up his exorcism of Nell — proudly showing off the stage gimmicks that sell the act — serves as an effective, clever prelude to the bad stuff we suspect will ultimately blow his mind.
But a movie selling itself as horror eventually has to start providing payoff, and it’s here where the script and director Daniel Stamm just don’t seem to have the right chops. You’re bound to get jittery once you see footage of the camera being hijacked by Nell for some bloody doings, and to scrunch up in your seat when Cotton and company enter a dark room looking for the occupant who should be somewhere. But The Last Exorcism never really figures out how to use the unique properties of the hand-held, anything-can-happen format for truly memorable scares. And, unfortunately, they also can’t figure out their answer to the biggest plausibility question for any movie of this type: What is it that, once it’s obvious things are really dangerous, keeps the person with the camera from just getting the hell out of there?
That all starts to feel like nit-picking once The Last Exorcism hits its climax, and a resolution that’s just silly where it seems determined to be horrifying. It’s frustrating enough to see the camera cutting back to Cotton and Iris when it’s obvious that nothing would be the cameraman’s focus besides the scene in front of him; it’s even worse that Cotton’s return to belief, the only dramatic hook carrying the story, is dispatched so quickly.
Docu-horror can only really work if it throws the viewer into a first-person experience of something terrifyingly primal. Real creepiness, it turns out, is something you can’t fake. Grade: C
Opens Aug. 27. Check out theaters and show times, see the trailer and get theater details here.