Just like 3D, I feel that, in most cases, found footage films are gimmicky and limiting. The only real successful examples of such films are the obvious choice of The Blair Witch Project, Cloverfield and Paranormal Activity. More often than not, even in the good examples of this shooting style, more effort is paid to explaining why the cameras are still rolling during severely traumatic events rather than to developing characters and telling a story.
However, I'm happy to report that The Last Exorcism can be added to the list of aforementioned successful attempts at the found footage horror film. Not only that, but the film also manages to pull off its scares and creeps with a PG-13 rating, something most films find almost impossible to achieve.
A lot of the success of The Last Exorcism comes in the form of its plot. Essentially, it follows the exploits of small-town Reverend Cotton Mathis (Patrick Fabian). A product of generations of devoutly religious clergy, Mathis has performed countless exorcisms, none of which he believes were actually real possessions. After reading about one exorcism resulting in a fatality, Cotton takes it upon himself to debunk the myth behind exorcism once and for all, as if telling the truth about what he does will absolve him from the lies he has helped propagate in the past. So, he hires a documentary crew to follow him on the job.
In the process of trying to uncover what he believes to be the truth, Cotton stumbles into a situation that causes him to reevaluate everything he thinks he knows about exorcism. Mathis and his camera crew travel to the Sweetzer farm, where young Nell (Ashley Bell) has fallen victim to a demonic possession.
While the film takes its sweet time to kick into horror mode, it spends a lot of its first half expertly developing characters and setting the stage for the terrifying events to unfold. The unknown cast does a wonderful job of portraying things in a completely believable way, even when things go far outside the realm of normality, particularly Ashley Bell, who rides the line between earthly psychosis and true demon possession will keep you guessing on the edge of your seat. Then her contortionist act will knock you off the edge. In case you're wondering, it isn't manipulated with CGI.
Also aiding the cause is highly involving score by Nathan Barr, which clearly breaks the typical rules of "found footage" but supplements the on screen tension very well, without telegraphing any scares waiting in the dark. The cinematography is obviously the typical hand-held kind, but it's not the type that will make you feel like vomiting because of all the jerky motion and whip panning.
Director Daniel Stamm clearly knows how to use the rules and tools available to him with this kind of documentary style to tell the story appropriately, while sucking an audience in with well-developed characters and making it all seem like it was captured on-the-fly. It's a rather brilliant achievement, especially since found footage films are generally considered to be one-offs.
In my opinion, the best thing about this movie is its ability to get under your skin. It carries a PG-13 rating and yet, there's almost no blood and gore, and lack of the f-word, something you'd expect to hear a lot more in situations involving demonic possession. However, the setting of the film, through a religious lens, makes the curbing of the language believable, and the film is directed in such a way that your mind makes up most of the effects. I find this to be the most effective way to make a film, particularly on a low budget, after all, the audience's minds are far more powerful and disturbing than any special effect devised. That's not to say The Last Exorcism has nothing to see- one particular moment involving a knife wound is especially shocking, but in general, the film works because of what you don't see.
If you're looking for a bloodbath, go see Piranha 3D. If you're looking for a tense and truly freaky film experience, give The Last Exorcism a try. It's what low-budget horror should be. Just keep an open mind about the found footage concept.