Preacher-turned-atheist confronts a demon

Ashley Bell stars in "The Last Exorcism" as Nell, the teenager whose behavior leads her father to believe she is possessed.
Ashley Bell stars in "The Last Exorcism" as Nell, the teenager whose behavior leads her father to believe she is possessed.
Posted: August 27, 2010

A preacher, says Rev. Cotton Marcus (Patrick Fabian), the unlikely hero of the surprisingly effective and satisfying demonic thriller The Last Exorcism, is also an entertainer, playwright, filmmaker, and magician.

The God part, the part about the preacher's faith? That's entirely incidental, adds Marcus.

Writer-director Daniel Stamm's sophomore feature is a superbly creepy story about a disillusioned preacher-turned-showman whose newfound atheism is challenged when he becomes embroiled with a real demon.

The film opens in Marcus' nicely appointed suburban home, where he and his wife (Shanna Forrestall) are entertaining a documentary film crew that has been shadowing Marcus for some time.

The faux-docu film-within-a-film setup will be all too familiar to fans of The Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Phenomenon. But this is no rip-off: Stamm used a similar format in his 2008 debut, A Necessary Death, a disturbing pic about a filmmaker who places an ad in the newspaper looking for a "suicidal individual to follow from first preparation to final act."

TV actor Fabian (HBO's Big Love) delivers a breakout performance as Marcus, an evangelical preacher from a long line of preachers who began performing with his dad at a very young age. It was a great gimmick for his dad's church, Marcus says.

Marcus is funny, reflective, self-mocking, cynical, but also a little sad. He clearly was affected by his loss of faith. He tells his interviewer that his flock are so primed to hear what they want to hear, he could talk about bread and they'd say hallelujah. Cut to a Sunday sermon as Marcus launches into a passionate discourse based on a banana bread recipe. His congregation is enraptured.

Marcus, who says he wants to expose the preaching game as a showbiz fraud, takes the film crew on an exorcism - the ultimate stage for a preacher to show off his tricks. Things start to go pear-shaped when the group arrives at an isolated farm to attend to Nell (Ashley Bell), a teenage girl whose father believes she is possessed by demons.

Nell has been slaughtering the livestock, she's been using cuss words and saying dirty things about sex. Is she mad? Possessed? Or a typical teenager going through puberty? Marcus goes through his whole shtick - complete with sound effects and a smoke machine embedded in a big, silver crucifix he uses as a weapon against the evil one. But it's to no avail.

The film descends into fantastically freaky territory as Nell deteriorates further and we learn some disturbing facts about her friends and her family preacher. The last 20 minutes of the film will stun you.

It's not as if we haven't seen any of this before in a string of demon flicks. But The Last Exorcism pulls off its sweetly scary magic trick with great style and panache.


Contact staff writer Tirdad Derakhshani at 215-854-2736 or tirdad@phillynews.com.

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