One of the tried and true story traditions in movie-making is demonic possession, be it in the form of a young girl (The Exorcist, 1973), a house (The Amityville Horror, 1979; Poltergeist, 1982), a ’58 Plymouth Fury (Christine, 1983), or a full-length mirror (Oculus, 2013). However, because of William Friedkin’s iconic film, exorcism has long had a special place in movie-goers’ imagination. Similar to The Omen (1976), The Exorcist and the genre it created compelled us to believe that extraordinary things could still happen in an otherwise modern secular world dominated more by the profane language of politics and science than by myth and magic.
In the case of Daniel Stamm’s The Last Exorcism (2010), you have a story that draws together the influences of The Blair Witch Project (1999), The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005), and Deliverance (1972). Taking place somewhere on the outskirts of New Orleans, in which the flamboyance of the French Quarter is left far behind, “Cotton Marcus” (Patrick Fabian) is an evangelical exorcist on his way with a film crew—“Iris Reisen” (Iris Bahr) and “Daniel Moskowitz” (Adam Grimes)—into parts unknown for an alleged case of possession. At the end of the road is the Sweetzer farm, where “Louis Sweetzer” (Louis Herthum) is awaiting their arrival, along with his daughter, “Nell” (Ashley Bell) and son, “Caleb” (Caleb Landry Jones).
Even though it was Louis who called Cotton for help, because of a terse encounter with Caleb while asking for directions, the crew of three are made to feel anything but welcome. At the same time, Cotton is not there because he is driven by faith and a sincere desire to help people in spiritual distress. Cotton is a cynic—who lost his faith long ago after his son became seriously ill—who now performs fake exorcisms for the poor and naïve, who are willing to indulge his chicanery in hopes that their suffering and torment will be alleviated. Louis is one of the willingly misled, as is Nell, who docilely submits to Cotton’s sham of an examination, in which she is diagnosed as being possessed by Abalam, an especially pernicious demon. While Louis quickly agrees to an exorcism, only Caleb expresses open skepticism toward Cotton’s spiritual prowess. Unbeknownst to anyone, though, is that the source of Caleb’s animosity toward Cotton will turn out to be an unimaginable phenomenon for this tiny impoverished Parish out in the Bayou.
As for Nell, is she merely an inexperienced girl deeply affected by her father’s agony after losing his wife or is there something else going on? Did she slaughter her father’s cattle as Louis claimed to Cotton or was it the work of an unidentified assailant, be it human or animal? As the mystery deepens and Nell’s behavior becomes more psychotic, Cotton and the others soon realize that they are in way over their heads and it is going to take more than their smoke and mirrors show to handle this predicament. All of this is seen through the eyes of the amateur documentarians filming Cotton’s exploits, which gives The Last Exorcism its unfiltered—though skillfully edited—reality. The setting, an unnamed and very rural area outside of New Orleans, takes the story where the rules governing modern urban life are suspended, invoking an age-old storytelling custom of placing events far away from the camp, the village, the city walls. For it is out in the woods, the desert, the swamp where astonishing things can happen. With the regard to the situation at the Sweetzer farm, then, the story is ultimately about what happens when a sham religion encounters real demons.