I haven’t felt this good about being scared in a damn long time. If I got nightmares, I would have them tonight. It’s a tricky movie. It’s slippery. But dammit if I didn’t want to know what was going to happen next every step of the way.

The Last Exorcism is the story of Reverend Cotton Marcus, a pastor from Baton Rouge who openly admits that he has been defrauding Christians for years by performing phoney exorcisms. He’s hired a documentary crew to film this, his last fake exorcism as a simultaneous defrauding of exorcists all over the world and confession. For his last job, he goes to the Sweetzer farm where he’s under the impression that Louis Sweetzer is possessed by a demon. It isn’t Louis who’s possessed. It’s his daughter, Nell.

Cotton doesn’t work with kids, due to an exorcism gone wrong in another state where a 10 year old autistic boy was suffocated. He dreams nightly about killing his own son in an exorcism gone wrong. Doesn’t work with kids is a euphemism for is terrified of being an accidental murderer. From what we see of his work, he has nothing to be scared of, reasonably.

Patrick Fabian plays the role understated. When talking about his worst nightmares, defrauding legitimate believers and his crisis of faith in the early scenes, we get a sense of a man who has found himself and doesn’t like where he is. We don’t hear this in his voice. We see it in where he looks when he speaks. An early winning scene is when he tells the documentary crew that he could go back into his church and preach a banana bread recipe and they wouldn’t hear it. If Fabian started reciting a banana bread recipe at one of the louder points in this movie, I wouldn’t have heard it. His performance carries the film, and he works hard to lift it well.

Reverend Marcus is a funny guy. He’s predisposed to skepticism, and the film shares his view. His first “exorcism” of Nell’s demons is intercut with scenes where he explains, grinning like a misbehaving schoolchild, how he’s pulling off these complex illusions. My favourite was when he, without saying a thing, pulls out a cross and shows it to the camera. Turns it around. Waggles his eyebrows. The punchline to that gag is too good to ruin. Let’s just say that you have to remember that Reverend Marcus is a quiet guy. That makes the joke that much more hilarious.

That’s likely this movie’s greatest strength. Whereas most horror movies rely on your empathetic nature to get you to sympathize with the protagonists solely because they’re human, Last Exorcism takes its allotted time in the opening to let you in to these people’s lives with humour. Cotton is a funny guy. His son is a legitimately endearing child. His wife is an earnest and open preacher’s spouse. The movie does the same for the Sweetzer family.

They aren’t as funny. They aren’t funny at all. But they, too, feel real. The movie sees these people as real and they deal with their troubles how real people would deal with them. Louis Sweetzer is a well-meaning if ill-informed man, torn up over the recent death of his wife and his own crisis of faith. His performance is nuanced enough to support any role the movie needs him to occupy at the moment, whether it be a dark foil to Reverend Marcus, villain, tragic hero or bystander in a much larger mystery.

Ashley Bell is stuck with the emotionally and physically challenging role of Nell. Possession victims always go through the worst mood swings, don’t they? All at once innocent and corrupt, restrained and unfettered, pure and devilishly sexual. It’s a tough role. She pulls it off, presenting both a young girl caught up in things far beyond her control and something far more sinister. Is Nell one or the other? Both? Good question.

Yet, of the family of three, the runaway performance for me was Caleb Jones as Caleb Sweetzer. This kid is phenomenal. He is the first character you meet outside of the Marcus family in the movie. His entrance and his performance are the signal that happy times end now. With nothing but almost childishly simple dialogue, Jones managed to make giving Cotton directions back to his own town into an implied death threat. With another actor, threats would come across as bluster and pomp. Jones keeps it real, and all of his scenes have the same feeling of terror you get when you’re misbehaving and someone who doesn’t like you knows. Though the movie discards his character when things get truly dangerous, his 20 minutes of screen time stayed with me long after I left the theater.

Exorcism does make three mistakes that keep it from being a shining example of camcorder horror like Cloverfield, and keep it from a perfect score. They’re not all game killers–I did my best to ignore them and enjoy the film regardless and succeeded, after all–but they are all mistakes. First, someone put this movie through the orange-and-tealerizer. Go get your camcorder. Record footage of you walking from your front lawn to the computer monitor you’re reading this on. Compare it to any of the footage in this film or upcoming camcorder teen sex comedy, The Virginity Hit. Film some people on the way. You’ll find that in the movies, unlike on your camera, people are orange and the backgrounds are either orange or a weird color of teal. All this means is that this movie is fake, and will remind you of such with every frame. There’s another article on this coming up.

Number two, the editing makes it obvious there was more than one camera on set. Camcorder horror filmmakers should watch more single-camera documentaries. Long takes are the name of the game. The camera should not have the best point of view in the house. Although this movie did have one of the only realistic camcorder running scenes I’ve seen, it still failed in the cutting room.

And last, Ashley Bell is 24 years old and playing 16. That is exactly as awkward as it sounds, especially with 21 year old Caleb Jones as her older brother. Casting must’ve been hell for that role, I understand, and losing either actor would mean losing a great performance, but more effort could’ve been made somewhere to make Bell believable as a sixteen year old girl. In the first scenes, she sticks out as an adult daughter with a kid brother. That’s just not cool.

But after all that, the film still got me. The jumpscares were good, the acting was great, the writing was daring…

And that ending. That ending was unforgettable. It got me. It had me going for a minute or two, and I was right there with it. THREE AND A HALF STARS