The prospect of journeying to Hell and back seems less daunting than sitting through another horror yarn made in the faux-documentary style of The Blair Witch Project, but The Last Exorcism proves to be a pleasant surprise — even more so since Hostel gorehound Eli Roth is listed as one of the film's producers.
Unlike Roth's hard-R outings as a director, The Last Exorcism is rated PG-13, but don't let that debatable rating give the false impression that this is one for the whole family to enjoy. Director Daniel Stamm uses the fake cinéma vérité style to milk a lot of tension out of this feature in which the charismatic and cynical Cotton Marcus (Patrick Fabian), a reverend who no longer believes what he preaches, takes along a two-person documentary crew to perform an exorcism in some remote Louisiana hellhole, to prove conclusively that exorcisms are bogus (he employs a smoking crucifix and iPod-emanating growls in his act) and merely prey upon the superstitions of rubes. Cotton thinks he's found a perfect showcase as devout farmer Louis Sweetzer (Louis Herthum) insists that it's his sweet and innocent teenage daughter Nell (Ashley Bell) who's causing the livestock mutilations while being demonically possessed. After some initial scoffing, Cotton realizes that there is indeed something wrong with the girl, but is it merely psychological trauma or is Satan really hanging around?
Propelled by unexceptionally fine performances from Fabian and Bell, this creepy yarn builds to a powerhouse ending that would be even stronger were it not so choppy and truncated. In fact, too many unanswered questions prevent this movie from soaring to even greater heights. Still, as a deftly executed piece of unsettling cinema, it's only fair to give Daniel Stamm — and the devil — their due.