I am incredibly fond of the hand-held sub-genre of horror that has become increasingly popular over the last decade. With the exception of "The St. Francisville Experiment", I have yet to see one that I've outright hated. Even George Romero's heavily maligned "Diary of the Dead" wasn't horrible, though I did find it a disappointing effort overall. For me, the first person point of view works like a charm in creating a more intimately frightening atmosphere. "The Last Exorcism" proves to be yet another example of this. The backwoods Louisiana locations are eerie enough to begin with, but they're further magnified by the first person style. What we see is never said to be found footage either, so the presence of a music score and the varying camera angles didn't bother me. I just see it as a film seen from the viewpoint of a documentary crew's camera, not as if it were someone's found footage being shown to me.
"The Last Exorcism" doesn't jump right into it's horror, as it spends a fair amount of time on character development. That's always refreshing, especially since the horror genre is so often devoid of it. It's also of particular importance here, as Cotton's character arc really pays off in the end. The image of him walking towards the flames, cross raised, has been burned into my mind since watching this film. It's a potent moment, all the more so due to the story's focus on character building. The acting is also most impressive, and there isn't a bad performance in the bunch. Patrick Fabian truly reminded me of an actual preacher in spite of his character's stance for most of the picture. Ashley Bell was also fantastic as the girl possessed, while Iris Bahr gives the film's most underrated performance as one of the documentarians. Louis Herthum does well as Nell's father, but the fluctuations in his character bothered me. He seemed to jump from one conclusion to another too quickly, and the scene of him chasing the crew around the house with his shotgun felt awkward. The writing for his character was my main issue with the film.
When the horror does show up, it's of the more subdued variety. Daniel Stamm focuses his film's scares more on the unnerving mood of the wooded area and the religious themes. Like the characters, the mood is allowed to build. The exorcism scene in the barn isn't as over-the-top as one might expect, which is frankly something that I appreciated. The lack of outlandish effects and ridiculous hysterics was a plus rather than a minus. The quiet, understated form of horror is almost always more effective than an in your face approach. As for the ending, I'm firmly in the camp of being all for it. It was a wonderful little throwback to all the devil cult pictures of the 70's, and it's clearly hinted at throughout the film. As mentioned earlier, it also brings Cotton's character arc to it's pinnacle, leading to that haunting shot foretold by Nell's drawing. Aside from the 70's cult influence, you can also see shades of both "The Blair Witch Project" and "Cannibal Holocaust" in the ending.
I must admit that I didn't expect much out of this one. It flew under my radar for a good while, but I'm pleased to say that it wound up being a welcome highlight in a year that has been quite weak for the horror genre.