As a die-hard fan of the original Exorcist (1973), I’m always mystified when yet another remake appears on the scene. It’s like trying to remake Citizen Kane—the first iteration was monumental, and any attempts to live up to it are predestined for failure. But don’t take my word for it—go and see The Last Exorcism, the second feature from German director Daniel Stamm (A Necessary Death). Perhaps producer Eli Roth, erstwhile auteur of the Hostel series, figured that his target audience was young enough never to have seen the original Exorcist, and thus wouldn’t know what they were missing. For the rest of us, though, the comparison is pretty stark.
The plot of The Last Exorcism is exactly what you would expect—almost. Instead of a downtrodden priest questioning his faith, as with Jason Miller’s character in the original Exorcist, this updated, postmodern version of the tale gives us the cynical Rev. Cotton Marcus (Patrick Fabian). Father Marcus is completely jaded, and completely honest with his camera crew (yes, it’s a mockumentary) about exorcism being a lucrative sham that preys on the indigent and illiterate. Agreeing to do one last exorcism in order to expose the practice as fraud, Marcus leaves his evangelical congregation (and wife and son) in Baton Rouge and journeys deep into the wasteland of rural Louisiana.
There we meet the Sweetzers: the heavy-drinking father (Lewis Herthum), the clearly disturbed brother (Caleb Landry Jones) and the overly angelic teenage daughter, Nell (Ashley Bell). The mother has been dead for two years, and it’s clear that this trauma has worked its way through each family member in a different way. This is an interesting flip from the original family structure of The Exorcist; in that case, the father was the absent parent, and there was a clear implication that the all-female household Regan was growing up in was somehow transgressive, making her vulnerable to demonic possession. Some literal Father figures had to show up to finally drive the demon away.
In the new film, Father Marcus goes ahead with his sham exorcism and thinks that’s the end of it—then Nell displays some truly superhuman abilities, and he is forced to rethink everything he knows about God, the Devil, and reality. At this point, things look fairly promising—you’re imagining that Marcus will be forced to confront the reality of demons and possession, and that he will save Nell and come out of the experience with his faith restored. Instead, in the last 5 minutes of the film, the writers (who have another film coming out this summer called The Virginity Hit) apparently decided they weren’t up to the task of tying up loose ends, and stuck on a finale that feels even lamer than the psychiatrist scene at the end of Psycho. The inadequacy of the ending really can’t be overstated—it seems that the writers and director simply got desperate, lazy or both, and decided to do a quick mash-up of Rosemary’s Baby and The Blair Witch Project and be done with it. All the work that went into setting up the story is thrown away at the end, and the film loses whatever potency it managed to generate.
The Last Exorcism does have some redeeming features, however. Chief among them is an interesting and surprisingly coherent implication that “possessed” Nell is actually being sexually abused, and that this accounts for her unstable personality and terrifying nocturnal hijinks (she is particularly fond of slashing the throats of her father’s farm animals). After witnessing Nell’s distress, Father Marcus is quick to hand her over to science—he repeatedly tells the father that Nell needs psychiatric treatment, but this, of course, is unheard of. The only salvation she needs is the Lord, and thus Marcus is drawn deeper and deeper into the situation, until its regrettably stupid conclusion. It’s worth noting that the actual possession scenes are surprisingly restrained, for a Roth-produced picture; there aren’t buckets of blood and absurd CGI, but there’s certainly enough terror and weirdness to keep things interesting.
If the realistic part of the story—that Nell was being abused and was never in the grip of a demon—had actually been followed through to the end, The Last Exorcism could have been a culturally relevant, provocative update on the original adolescent-girl-possessed story. Instead, by totally departing from everything it’s worked to set in motion, the film’s ending simply glosses over all its own implications and leaves no room for interpretation. What could have been new and daring ended up being nothing but hugely disappointing. But, for those of us loyal to the original film, it’s hardly a surprise.