Did the devil make Nell (Ashley Bell) do it in "The Last Exorcism".

Did the devil make Nell (Ashley Bell) do it in "The Last Exorcism".

Back when I was too young to drive myself anywhere but old enough to ride my bike places, I would, on most any summer day, trek on down to the old Hampton-Illinois library. You could usually find me in one of a couple of places: either somewhere in with the science-fiction books or in the religion section. Religion might sound like a curious section for a boy barely in double digit years to be poking around in, but there was one book that constantly held my fascination. Up on one of the higher shelve – high enough for me to need a step stool to get to – was a small red and black book, barely bigger than a paperback.

Its title, one simple word: Demonology.

Maybe there was just something about my Roman Catholic upbringing that drew me into that mysterious world of candlelit rituals and spiritual warfare. Maybe I’ve always been attracted to the darker elements of life. Whatever the reason, it makes me excited about movies like “the Last Exorcism”.

“The Last Exorcism” follows Pastor Cotton Marcus, who was raised by his father (also a pastor) to be a prodigy, touched by the Holy Spirit at a young age. However, he’s not so much a prodigy of spirit as he is a prodigy of study and manipulation. Now, after all these years of being trotted out like a performing pony, he wants out. All he wants is a job with health insurance. As a bit of a last hurrah, Marcus decides to take a documentary crew with him on a random exorcism in rural Louisiana to show that, like much of what he’s known of organized religion, it’s all just showmanship and some sleight of mind. They meet with Louis Sweetzer who is very concerned that his daughter, Nell, is possessed. Marcus approaches it most likely as he has every exorcism he’s ever performed and we are brought along through the process. After money has changed hands, Marcus performs a very theatrical exorcism, complete with groaning demons and smoldering crosses. Nell is fine now… or is she?

“Exorcism”, while nowhere near as hyped as last year’s “found footage” sensation, “Paranormal Activity” is, head and shoulders, a better movie. What set “Exorcism” apart is the development of the characters. There is more to the people portrayed than just what might be considered stereotype. Pastor Marcus – portrayed with an easy charm by Patrick Fabian – while seeming like an affable con man trying to pull as fast one over on a rube, is also a man tired of his current lot, conflicted in his faith and possessing compassion in the face of an unbelievable situation. As the possessed, I absolutely loved Ashley Bell’s performance as Nell. There were so many little things she did – sometimes a look or a slight upturn of her mouth – that conveyed so much of what was going on within, be it joy or fear or madness or menace. She was simply amazing.

However, one thing that may be a point of contention for some viewers is that “Exorcism” is shot in cinema vérité style or what has simply been dubbed lately as “shaky cam” style. Detractors only seem to be able to take from the movie that the camera moves a lot and essentially missing the magic that what happens on the screen isn’t being presented as simply entertainment, but as an actual event. When done well, as in the cases of “The Blair Witch Project”, 1980’s “Cannibal Holocaust” or 2007’s “[REC]”, the film pulls you into its reality. Success or failure of the style isn’t based on the steadiness of the film but on how effectively it keeps you in its world. To that end, I feel that “Exorcism” succeeds handily. Director Daniel Stamm, in his first mainstream feature, does a wonderful job of establishing characters and the tone, gradually dialing up the tension as things go along. Another point of debate will be the ending. Of all the possible endings, I felt the way they handled it was one of the more creative ways without jarring us from the world they worked so hard to keep us in.

Teenaged gorehounds may be disappointed by the lack of the traditional horror trappings of gore and nudity, but “the Last Exorcism” more than makes up for it by giving us a riveting and frightening experience.