A major appeal of a good possession movie is the thrill of a conversation with a demon or, best of all, the devil himself. The enduring popularity of John Milton’s long poem Paradise Lost is a testimony to this. In Paradise Lost, the reader gets to listen to Lucifer and his reasons for disobeying God. Lucifer is so convincing, in fact, that one of the poem’s problems is that too many simply side with Lucifer and agree that, yes, God was being tyrannical and sympathize with Lucifer’s desire to rebel. If you’re expecting to hear a demon or the devil in The Last Exorcism, you’ll be disappointed.
Director Daniel Stamm’s The Last Exorcism centres around Cotton Marcus, a Reverend preacher who has no faith in what he preaches. He and a couple of cameramen hope to make a film pointing out the fraudulent nature of exorcisms and possession. Cotton takes an exorcism request in the deep American south where he meets Nell, the girl believed to be possessed.
In the simplest sense, The Last Exorcism fails to be a horror movie because there aren’t any attempts at horror made until very near the end of the film. In plain terms of categorization, the film is much more a comedy than a horror. Cotton’s unashamed fraudulence and his showmanship have us amused for much of the film. One heated whisper-argument where Cotton and his camera man and woman argue over the merits of staying in a house where there are drawn pictures of all of them dead is especially funny (“She’s a 16 year-old girl!” “A 16 year-old girl and 16 year-old psychopath are two very different things!”).
By the time we actually encounter the images of the preview – Nell contorting her body horribly – the film is nearly over and we finally learn that she is possessed. The conversation with the demon at this point is very weak. The demon-through-Nell says only a couple things. One is “Reverend [Cotton] Marcus…I hear you don’t believe in me.” The irony here is that this is less what a demon would say (behind it the vexation, how dare you not believe in me!) than God himself. Lucifer has set out to destroy God’s creation, after all, and so a faithless man ought to be welcome to a high-ranking demon.
Another feature that waters down the possession is the choice of behaviour. Why a prominent demon – a fallen angel – would want to kill a cat with a camera, I have no idea. As effective as that violence is, the demon himself becomes stupid and unthreatening in any psychological sense. The same stupidity shows when Cotton asks where Nell is and the demon answers, “in the fire.” Seeing that Nell is still alive, it’s plain to everyone that her soul is not in hell. The line has no weight. Compare with this the possession in The Exorcist where the devil uses great intelligence, insight, and malice to temp and torture Father Miller at his very core (and delivering such brutal lines as “Your mother sucks cock in hell!”). This latter possession is marked by the real terror (which also happens to be the Christian understanding of possession) of a demon trying to ruin souls by destroying faith and encouraging sin.
Finally, like in The Exorcist, the main character of The Last Exorcism is not the possessed girl but the exorcist. The Last Exorcism is about Cotton’s faithlessness as he encounters a real-life demon. He doesn’t appear to struggle much with maintaining his secular view until, at the end, he sees something that we can only imagine shakes his faithlessness deeply. The movement of Cotton’s character might be too sudden (we see no conflict or struggle in his faith), but he nonetheless appears to be converted back to faithfulness and takes up his cross sincerely.
Cotton is the best feature of the film not just for his humour and believability but because he stands in for the modern westerner. Cotton can’t remember exactly when he lost his faith. He was raised in it; though exorcism malpractice played a role in his discouragement, he just lost it somewhere along the way. And as funny as Cotton may be, he is a tragic character who is all show and no content. In this way, if there is horror to be had in The Last Exorcism, it is in Cotton’s mirroring of a whole culture that is full of sound and fury but which signifies nothing. It is not with a little dread, then, that we watch and learn that the only thing powerful enough to redeem and change Cotton is a disastrous encounter with the real.