Director Daniel Stamm dresses his story up in a mockumentary format that is the film’s saving grace, as well as its damnation. This "found footage" approach puts us in The Blair Witch Project (1999) territory. On the plus side, it means that all opening exposition is dealt with rigorously in the first five minutes, and that we get a good flavour of rural Americana. However, much like the demon-inhabited Nell (Ashley Bell) is chained to her bed, this format chains the film’s possibilities to an extent that the makers seem unwilling to admit. So we have the totally un-scary section (and this is a stand out, because much of the rest of the movie does work as a frightener) in which Nell, under the influence of demon Abalam, takes the movie camera and films herself wandering around aimlessly grunting, before hitting a cat with it. In the hands of more skilled filmmakers, this frame of "documentary" would prove a restriction that forced creativity. Here, it seems like a USP that gets inconvenient about two thirds of the way in. None of the performances are quite good enough to convince us that we’re not watching actors, and the situations in which the camera is still turned on become more and more implausible (though who am I to complain about that in a movie that involves demons and sacrifice?).
Despite all, however, The Last Exorcism works in two important ways. First of all, it has a home-brew charm that somehow excuses narrative sloppiness. The plot meanders disgracefully, and our leading character, Cotton Marcus – in a performance by Patrick Fabian that glues the film together – is totally incoherent about his goals and motivations in the opening interviews. Except that all of this feels rather charming and cheap. Alongside that, the mockumentary presentation completely nails the settings and paraphernalia of middle-American Christianity. All the churches are lacquered flooring and big windows, clipped lawns and clapping laymen. We’ve seen it all before in many a real documentary, but never in this hokey-fun-fairground context. Indeed, The Last Exorcism would be a better movie if it pushed this world more. We’re told at the beginning that Reverend Marcus has become cynical about the ways of the church, and he comments (in a clumsily foreshadowing way) that if one believes in God, then one must believe in devils, too. This statement should be giving the audience a way to read the movie, or a grain to go against. However, as the plot descends into Wicker Man territory, it becomes clear that the Stamm and his writers have no concept of narrative foreshadowing whatsoever. They should have taken a lesson from their own screenplay: the most interesting section of the movie is the fake exorcism, purely because the audience can see the strings.