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Rev. Cotton Marcus, the De-conversion Story That Wasn't

Movie Review: The Last Exorcism (2010)
Spoilers: none

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In The Last Exorcism, we have yet another in the line of “mockumentary”-style films made to be as convincing as any documentary you'll see on A&E or anywhere else—this time with alleged footage of the Louisiana exorcism of a 16-year-old girl named Nell Sweetzer (Ashley Bell). Not a word of it is true, but we’ll go along with it anyway and leave those who want to gripe about its representation as truth to do their own griping.

Mr. Cotton Marcus (Patrick Fabian) comes from a long line of demon-exorcizing evangelists, the kind who basically hear God talking to them. He found his calling to entertain/evangelize at age 10, and here he is all these years later questioning the very belief in God that everyone assumes he holds. Upon seeing a video of some believers suffocating a child during an exorcism, he finds his motivation to start documenting the ignorance on display found in religious camps.

But Rev. Marcus is still active in religious camps himself. Unlike the author of this review – who found himself morally obligated to walk away from a career as a minister because of his doubts – Mr. Marcus carries on, rendering, as he sees it, a service to those who need to believe in something. This allows him to perform exorcisms while taking money for it like the rest of the faithful.

The Last Exorcism, as a documentary, is supposed to be the pastor's greatest effort to expose the potentially deadly ignorance of applied fundamentalist religion gone awry. But as with most Hollywood productions, it is the unfaithful pastor who gets shown that more exists than he gives credit for. Kooky Hollywood religious nuts have a message for all atheists: “Keep your close-mindedness to yourselves, you boneheads, and excuse us while we use our minds to make it rain!”

What begins with a gradual unfolding of some disturbingly backwoods influences behind Christian fundamentalism in the charismatic movement (like only an ex-pastor can appreciate), the screenplay is carried along with riveting, bone-chilling suspense. And nothing is to be as fully and heartily exploited like a believer's need for deliverance. Seeing sensationalized supernatural elements in the mix should only be considered a bonus with this much on-edge storytelling skill on hand. 

Duping the innocent and the gullible who live where poverty is perpetually high (along with superstition and a documented lack of education) should intrigue us all, but so should any documentary-style film where the sense of anticipation is kept so high for so long—that is, until just after 2/3 of the way in when the plot begins to disseminate into little more than eerie sounds and bizarre supernatural showcasing that doesn't induce fear as much as it does give occasional goose-bumps.

In that time, you get to see Cotton Marcus, an admitted conman and professional pious player for money, as he dupes a Louisiana family. But he's wrong in his atheism, so says the film. The supernatural does exist, and backwards people like Louis Sweetzer (Louis Herthum) know it. He happens to be right. But rather than get his daughter help after an exorcism fails, he sticks to his guns (literally) and demands another, saying: “Psychiatry is not of God.” It's as if the idiots of this world get it right just by being stupid, and the educated, boneheaded atheists are wrong because they commit the Hollywood-codified sin of being "close-minded." 

EVP (electronic voice phenomena) is mixed in, as are clever trick techniques used before and during an exorcism to convince onlookers. Things seem to be progressing nicely until after the initial exorcism, when our demon-possessed damsel decides to hijack the camera for herself to show off the killing of a cat. At such a point, the eeriest of music will cease to be as scary. At some places, it is not even clear how this documentary is so perfectly shot from these angles with one person filming.

What had whopping potential to start with finishes as a complete mess that lacks focus and clarity and doesn't really go about to please any one allotment of the viewing audience. Nothing lives up to the deceitful hype in what becomes a near-complete botch. By the end, things have gone so haywire that you want the whole state of Louisiana to fall into a mosquito-ridden marsh and be forgotten about.

What we end up with is not a de-conversion story or a conversion story, or a testament to the occult or the supernatural. What we have is a once-suspenseful mess that took the wrong path, not unlike so many formerly devout religious men who learned better. 

(JH)

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Grade: C- (2 stars)
Rated: PG-13 (for disturbing violent content and terror, some sexual references, and thematic material)
Director: Daniel Stamm
Summary: A troubled evangelical minister agrees to let his last exorcism be filmed by a documentary crew.
Starring: Patrick Fabian "Cotton Marcus," Ashley Bell "Nell Sweetzer," Iris Bahr "Iris Reisen," Louis Herthum "Louis Sweetzer," Caleb Landry Jones "Caleb Sweetzer," Tony Bentley "Pastor Manley," John Wright Jr. "John Marcus," Shanna Forrestall "Shanna Marcus," Justin Shafer "Justin Marcus"
Genre: Horror / Thriller
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