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‘Somehow the devil got in her,’ says Louisiana farmer Louis Sweetzer (Louis Herthum,) grimly shaking his head. He’s referring to his innocent, recorder-playing, sixteen year-old daughter Nell (Ashley Bell) and her nightly hatchet-jobs on the livestock.

Come to sort out the problem – or at least pretend to – is the Reverend Cotton Marcus (Patrick Fabian), a big city preacher and long-time exorcist whose flair for the theatrical is matched only by his troubled conscience. Unknown to Louis, Cotton intends to do no more than expose the tricks of his trade for the two documentary-makers who are following him night and day (the film we see is the footage they shoot).

“This’ll shake nicely,” says Cotton, testing Nell’s rickety four-poster bed. Using lengths of fishing line and pre-recorded demon noises, he rigs up her bedroom to behave like the one in The Exorcist, and he even does a Father Karras at the climactic moment, drawing the demon into himself with a puff of his doctored crucifix. Yet despite his sterling performance, Nell turns up in Cotton’s motel room in the middle of the night, clearly none the better. Convinced that this is a case of an isolated young girl grieving the recent loss of her mother, Cotton does his best to persuade Louis that what she needs is a doctor, not an exorcist. But with his holy terror stoked to an even higher pitch by Cotton’s lurid tales of the virgin-defiling demon Abalam (‘He’s particularly bad when he’s in a young girl,’) Louis is eyeing his shotgun as the only solution to his daughter’s woes.

The Last Exorcism – a straight half and half mix of the The Exorcist and The Blair Witch Project, with a bit of Rosemary’s Baby tossed in for an added kick – is a film of considerable dexterity, not least in its ability to keep you on a knife-edge as to whether Nell is sick or genuinely possessed, with the result that you vacillate between pity and terror the way some superstitious backwoodsman might. It plays a similar game with the notion of faith – is it a repressive force, or a source of redemption? Writers Huck Botco and Andrew Gurland are very good at setting up and springing a number of slow-burning ironies – Cotton’s realization that his mumbo-jumbo has primed Louis to commit filicide being only one of many. Among a convincing cast, Bell is outstanding as Nell, a simpering ingénue one minute, a scowling harpy on top of a wardrobe the next. Playing Cotton, Fabian captures the troubled inner-life of a man too slick for his own good.

Director Daniel Stamm builds the tension expertly, and there are plenty of instances where cinematographer Zoltan Honti’s reality TV-style camera-work refreshes what might otherwise be corny sequences of Nell lurking in gloomy, backlit hallways. But it’s the use of the proposed documentary as a framing device that in the end mutes the film’s impact. As a gimmick it has too much baggage within the horror genre, and you don’t have to be an Old Testament prophet to foretell the eventual break-down of the project under perilous circumstances.

Even if we do know where it’s going, what lifts The Last Exorcism well above the level of uninspired retread is the character of Cotton, a man whose calling forces him to straddle the two worlds of urban scepticism and hinterland superstition. Cinema’s best doubting preacher since Gene Hackman in The Poseidon Adventure, Cotton makes a charming and intelligent guide, grimacing apologetically as he prepares to dazzle the Sweetzer’s with another bit of fake hocus-pocus. If Fabian’s assured performance doesn’t elevate him to leading man sainthood, then there’s no justice this side of the pearly gates.

Best performance: Patrick Fabian.
Best scene: lLt’s play Twister – demonic possession style.
Best vacant property: Isolated farmhouse with unreliable electrics.

German-born director Daniel Stamm courted controversy with his previous film, A Necessary Death, about a young documentary-maker recording the last moments of a would-be suicide.

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