When The Blair Witch Project arrived in 1999, it had the element of surprise going for it. While it drew from its own precursors, the horror-film-as-pseudo-documentary still felt new. And the cast and creators nailed it, combining convincing onscreen terror with filmmaking that exploited all the possibilities of the approach: disturbing offscreen noise, negative space begging to be filled with horrible images, and disorienting whip-pans atop disorienting whip-pans. The game has become familiar now, so asking for surprise might be asking too much. But while Daniel Stamm doesn’t reinvent the form with the low-budget pseudo-doc The Last Exorcism, he exploits it well.
He also toys with it, teasing the notion of how hard it is to tell real from fake even when viewing it through the cold lens of a video camera. The last exorcism of the title belongs to a preacher played by Patrick Fabian, a Baton Rouge Bible-thumper with a career dating back to his childhood. Plagued by a nagging conscience and a crisis of faith, he decides to let a documentary crew film an exorcism in rural Louisiana, exposing himself and others like him as charlatans. A familiar face from television thanks to Big Love and Veronica Mars, among other shows, Fabian digs into the part of a man gleefully unburdening himself of a career based on lies, exorcism only the most profitable among them. More showman than man of God, he tells one of the documentarians he’ll slip a recipe for banana bread into one of his sermons without anyone noticing, then proceeds to do just that while casting a knowing grin at the camera. He won’t be the last to make that expression, though. Traveling to an isolated farm troubled by animal slaughter, Fabian and the crew find a sweet, creative 16-year-old (Ashley Bell) who believes she’s possessed by the devil. As Fabian fakes his way through another exorcism, evidence suggests she might be right.
Aided by strong performances from Bell and Fabian, Stamm deftly plays with the boundary of fact and fiction, though his game might have worked better with a little more grounding in verisimilitude. Fabian’s brand of fundamentalism feels cobbled together from an outsider’s perspective of how evangelicals think, the editing cheats the one-shaky-camera-tells-the-story approach a bit too often, and the finale abandons the carefully constructed ambiguity. That said, it’s scary as hell and funny too, letting viewers relax into Fabian’s confessional task early on, then ratcheting up the tension one unbearable moment at a time until the pressure threatens to crush the camera that’s trying to capture what it can’t understand.