Exorcisms, poltergeists, demons, and paranormal studies are all mainstays in my household...
...No, I’m not actually afflicted by any real manifestation, but I do have a fervent fascination with the subject. As you might guess, when it comes to horror films, I’m a fanatic for the supernatural subgenre. I love getting myself genuinely scared, at times so much that I’m worked up to a panic. Sounds pretty nihilistic, and maybe it is, but I get a kick out of it. Uncork’d Entertainment’s The Last Exorcist tries to scratch that paranormal itch that I so often crave. Writer/director Robin Bain has quite the resume. From heaps of writing credits to status as the driving force behind her first feature film, 2016’s critic and audience pleaser Girl Lost, her renown is undoubtedly well-earned. Despite such esteem, she seems to be in unfamiliar and somewhat uncomfortable territory with The Last Exorcist and the unease shows.
This tale of possession centers around two sisters, connected despite their differences by a particularly rough childhood plagued with abuse and trauma. After the loss of their mother, they were taken in by the Catholic church and found a kind of parental comfort in Father Peter (Dennis LaValle). Now adults, the sisters struggle to find their footing in life and are devastated by the sudden death of Father Peter. Jo (Rachele Brooke Smith), is wholesome, naïve, and soft-spoken. Maddie (Terri Ivens), on the other hand, is a self-medicating, impulsive, and generally uncouth person. Despite their differences, both sisters are endearingly codependent and have had each other’s backs through thick and thin. Soon after Father Peter’s death, Maddie slowly becomes more volatile. Trying to piece everything together, Jo believes there may be a connection between their mother, Father Peter, and a demonic entity. While visiting Father Peter’s gravesite, Jo and Maddie are visited by a man known only as Marco (Danny Trejo), who knew Father Peter well. He insists they stay in contact with him because something terrible is looming over them and they will need his help to face the coming hardships.
Danny Trejo versus demonic evil spirits sounds like a campy, bottom of the Redbox screen disaster of Asylum proportions, right? Well, thankfully it’s really not that kind of film. Rather than being an unfunny romp trying to capitalize on Trejo’s B movie status, it fails in a different way. The Last Exorcist is, without a doubt, taking itself very seriously. I have to give it a little bit of credit in this regard, because while there’s not a single scare or tense moment, Robin Bane is at least trying to tell a story without the crutch of “all in good fun” silliness that gives some films a pass for their level of outlandishness. Unfortunately, the narrative framework is dull and formulaic. If you’ve ever seen a film featuring exorcisms, demons and the works, this film is a near parody of all their tired tropes. Main characters experiencing frightening hallucinations, only to snap back to normal with confused bystanders? Check. Possessed person screaming obscenities and dark truths with the coupling of a low end processed demon voice and the actor’s regular voice? Check. Predictable climax with one final exorcism to end all exorcisms? Check. All the usual suspects make an appearance and ultimately result in a boring experience. It’s as if this was written by solely referring to an exorcism movie handbook, ensuring that every beat is right on cue. There are no surprises, and nothing is scary or even remotely exciting. Not every film needs or should be expected to be wholly original, but this film seemed much more interested in exploring convention than breaking away from it.
The performances mostly miss the mark or are underutilized, with the silver lining being Terri Ivens. I first saw Ivens in another Uncork’d Entertainment film, Coven (2020), which I reviewed earlier this year. She was the exception in that film as well. I hope she continues to get more attention; her talent shines through as pure and natural. It’s strange watching someone who is able to engage and commit themselves so fully in the midst of lackluster material and unremarkable performances, but she was certainly well-cast. Out of the two sisters, Maddie demands the most in terms of performance and range. In the span of one small scene, Ivens can convincingly go from lovably quirky and free-spirited to inconsolable and repulsively crude. It’s bittersweet, as it’s a joy to watch her perform, but saddening that she isn’t in better projects. As expected, Danny Trejo is underutilized, only appearing in a handful of short scenes, peppered throughout the film. His character isn’t given much depth, with his only real role in the film being that of a wise, earnest, helpful hand. It’s almost as if his hardened but good-natured real-life persona gets taken advantage of in film. Of course, the man is free to choose whatever projects he wants, but I would be very interested to see him in a more challenging role. I truly believe he has the potential to become respected as an actor beyond the usual character bits.
Unfortunately, where Terri Ivens excels as Maddie, Rachele Brooke Smith’s performance as Jo is less successful, almost to the point of distraction. She’s no doubt beautiful, but her dialogue delivery didn’t quite feel believable. A few scenes have her in a state of distress, sometimes crying, and it never comes across as genuine. Maybe it was the dry eyes, or the mild, understated portrayal of fear, but I was unable to view her as a full-fledged character. Most of her lines sound heavily rehearsed and inorganic, and her reactions to situations are obtusely unaffected. However, I was able to buy into the idea that Jo and Maddie were sisters. A lot of this authenticity is credited to Ivens’ ability to draw better performances out of her counterpart. Admittedly, the two have a special chemistry that offers the film a small, but noticeable charm. And to be fair to Smith, I don’t think any performance replacement or addition would be enough to save the film from its predictable, formulaic plot.
The Last Exorcist takes itself perhaps too seriously for its own good and, for me, was an unsuccessful attempt. Its grasp for ground in the supernatural horror subgenre doesn’t quite work, and it’s unfortunately predictable enough to risk leaving viewers bored. Ivens’ performance elevates the film, but one performance alone is rarely enough to warrant a recommendation. If you’re like me, and have the insatiable demonic itch to be scratched, there are plenty of other options to consider instead.
The Last Exorcist comes to DVD/Digital from Uncork’d Entertainment October 13th.
By Jeffrey W. Hollingsworth