'Last Exorcism' an effective exercise in viral fright

A film crew hears about spooky happenings in a forbidding corner of the American countryside. They decide to investigate in spite of warnings from wary locals. Things don't go very well.

This synopsis of 1999's "The Blair Witch Project" fits all the main plot points of Daniel Stamm's "The Last Exorcism," the latest in a string of low-budget, faux-documentary-style horror films that are known more for their viral campaigns than their fright content.

While some lesser examples of this genre (e.g., 2009's "Paranormal Activity") tend to be too contrived for plausibility, "The Last Exorcism" stays grounded in reality, giving us a believable set of characters who react like sane individuals. This may be a first in cinematic horror history.

For the first 20 minutes, the film could be confused with a PBS documentary. We meet Cotton Marcus (Patrick Fabian), a slightly oily preacher from Baton Rouge, La., who describes his career as half of a father-son evangelical duo that has purportedly exorcised demons from dozens of true believers across the Bible Belt.

Now, Cotton is facing a crisis of conscience and admits to the interviewer that his exorcisms have been outright shams. The "documentary," taking place at the isolated Sweetzer farm deep in Louisiana's backcountry, is intended to be Cotton's exorcism exposé to reveal all the bump-in-the-night stagecraft he used to dupe his gullible followers. Only this time, (surprise!) Cotton may have stumbled upon The Real Thing.

Director Stamm elicits convincing, naturalistic performances from his cast of mostly unknowns without resorting to easy Southern Gothic clichés. Ashley Bell perfectly balances innocence and menace in her portrayal of Nell Sweetzer, the allegedly possessed teenager, and proves that she can bend, twist and neck-crack Linda Blair under the table. Caleb Landry Jones also shines as Nell's over-protective brother, with the unsettling habit of smiling as he makes mortal threats.

Given such a promising setup, it's a pity that the final minutes of the film nearly erase all of the well-crafted suspense, logic and creepiness of the first hour. Stamm commits the sin of twisting the plot one turn too far by tacking on an uninspired and rather silly ending.

Despite this serious flaw, the film's subtle sense of humor makes it worth seeing. Since we know from the start that Cotton is a charlatan, we get to laugh at his cheesy theatrics during his fake exorcism. This only makes things more disturbing when we discover little Nell walking around in bloodstained jammies even after she has been "cured."

The minor thrills and gimmicks of "The Last Exorcism" may not withstand repeated viewings, but the wit and care that went into making the first 90 percent of the film are just enough to make it stand out amid the usual late-summer schlock at the multiplex.[[In-content Ad]]