Patrick Fabian and Ashley Bell, in 'The Last Exorcism'

Dir. Daniel Stamm
(2010, PG-13, 87 min)
★ ★ ★

The Last Exorcism borrows heavily from better films: The Exorcist in obvious ways, The Blair Witch Project in its pseudo-docu-realism, and a third I won’t reveal because it would give away the plot — you’ll know it when you see it. But German director Daniel Stamm assembles the ingredients with aplomb. It’s an eerie, atmospheric addition to a well-worn genre, enough fun not to be ponderous but taking itself and its influences seriously enough to generate significant dread.

Surprisingly, the film is at its most interesting before the fright-fest kicks in. It follows Cotton Marcus (Patrick Fabian), a successful Louisiana preacher who is the subject of a documentary by Iris Reisen (Iris Behr). He began preaching when he was a child and performed his first exorcism at age ten. Now an adult with a wife and son, he questions his faith and strives to debunk his old demonic superstitions. In one interview, he explains his ambivalence about continuing to preach during his crisis of faith; I think he might be an interesting character even in a straight drama, or perhaps a satire, as suggested by a terrific scene where he exposes the sleight of hand that goes into an effective exorcism performance.

He receives a letter from a desperate small-town father, Louis (Louis Herthum), who thinks his daughter Nell (Ashley Bell) has been possessed by the devil. These characters too are compelling. Louis’s wife died of cancer, and his reaction was a fanatical dedication to his Christian faith. He removed his daughter from her religious school, home-schools her, and has isolated her from the outside world. Nell’s alleged behavior — killing farm animals — may be the result of child abuse, but even if she does turn out to be possessed by the devil her father’s hands may not be clean.

An unseen camera operator named Daniel (Adam Grimes) captures the action, and the film is amusingly self-conscious about its documentary style; even standing still Daniel has an unsteady hand. He shakes, favors overly intense push-ins on faces, and is hit-and-miss with focus. If he were more competent behind the camera, I suppose the movie would look too much like a movie, but if I were Iris I’d look at the dailies and fire him.

What I like about the camera work — the same thing I liked about it in Blair Witch — is how it limits our field of vision. In its restrictive frame, it keeps more out of view than in, shining its stark camcorder light on the center with darkness around the edges of the image, demonstrating the principle that what you can see is never as scary as what you can’t. The characters are occasionally dumber than they need to be, running up stairs to investigate strange noises when they should be running far, far, far away, but if they weren’t overcome by their curiosity — and in this case a stubborn compassion for poor Nell — we’d have nothing to be afraid of. What would be the fun of that?