(director: Daniel Stamm; screenwriters: Huck Botko/Andrew Gurland; cinematographer: Zoltan Honti; editor: Shilpa Khanna; music: Nathan Barr; cast: Patrick Fabian (Cotton Marcus), Ashley Bell (Nell Sweetzer), Iris Bahr (Iris Reisen), Louis Herthum (Louis Sweetzer), Caleb Landry Jones (Caleb Sweetzer), Tony Bentley (Pastor Manley), Shanna Forrestall (Mrs. Marcus), Adam Grimes (Daniel Moskowitz); Runtime: 87; MPAA Rating: PG-13; producers: Eric Newman/Eli Roth/Marc Abraham/Thomas A. Bliss; Lionsgate; 2010)
A mockumentary with a Blair Witch Project-like shaky hand-held camera.

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Inspired by the 1972 Oscar-winning documentary “Marjoe,” this low-budget far from inspirational religious film is about the last tour of a second generation hustler Pentecostal preacher, Cotton Marcus (Patrick Fabian), who is a cynical doubter in the Devil but slickly performs exorcisms to richly support his adoring wife and kids in style. Director Daniel Stamm (“A Necessary Death”/”Off Hollywood and Vine”) films the guilt-stricken fraud’s last exorcism as a mockumentary with a Blair Witch Project-like shaky hand-held camera (Ugh!) and as a plot ploy uses similar found footage to makes it tale that much scarier. Stamm titillates us with many well-placed shocks that include animal and human mutilations, teasing sexual overtones, plenty of Jesus prayers for setting a somber mood and a haunting violent devil worship sequence (the film’s centerpiece homage to The Exorcist, depicting a bloody deformed demon baby with blood pouring out from the nether regions of the possessed woman bound to the unholy altar of Satan).

What it does well is provide plenty of ammo for religious skeptics about scams committed under those professing to be virtuous believers in God and raises questions about such rigid extremist fundamentalist beliefs that probably do more harm than good. The manipulative film works well as a realistic modern-day horror pic until the last reel, where it falls apart as it resorts to the usual exploitative hokey Hollywood takes on exorcisms and ruins any higher aim it possibly was shooting for before imploding into a crass film (the questionable ridiculous climax probably gives the masses the shock thrills the movie suits thinks it wants, but at a price that costs it its aesthetic value).

The clever screenplay, until the final act, is by Huck Botko and Andrew Gurland, that uses droll humor, eerie atmosphere and psychological dysfunction to mount its story as something absurd but possible. It takes strong acting by the possessed female played by Ashley Bell and the teenage vic’s concerned brother played by Caleb Landry Jones, to make such shit hit the fan. Also the smug phony Baton Rouge nonbeliever reverend exorcist, is played convincingly by Patrick Fabian to keep things disturbingly real.

The glib and cocky Cotton is ready to leave his Pentecostal preaching for maybe lucrative real estate ventures and signs with a documentary crew to film probably his last exorcism, hoping to expose exorcisms as a shady business based on superstition and a medieval practice that is only growing more popular in these confusing contemporary times. Cotton received a letter from a devout Christian Louisiana farmer Louis Sweetzer (Louis Herthum), who resides in an isolated poverty-stricken rural area just outside New Orleans called Ivanwood, and decides that the exorcism of the farmer’s 16-year-old daughter Nell (Ashley Bell) will be routine and ready-made for a documentary to expose his scam. Nell is the sweet home-schooled daughter of the widowed, shot-gun toting, drunken dad, who believes his daughter is possessed by a demon and is slaughtering his livestock.

With the two-person film crew (Iris Bahr & Adam Grimes) filming the exorcism, Cotton resorts to his usual tricks of the trade to put on a show that he’s removing the Devil from the possessed girl; such as, using concealed sound effects of the Devil, hidden tape recorders, a crucifix with smoke coming out of it and various other cheap magical tricks to make it a sideshow. That show seemed to have gone real well in getting everyone to believe he saved the girl, though Cotton believes that what both father and daughter really need is a good shrink and that any problems manifested are earthly matters. But while in a nearby motel he’s called back to Sweetzer’s remote farm as the staged possession suddenly turns real for Nell, and Cotton’s asked to perform another exorcism.

The movie chickens out as it fails to go all the way in taking a good whack at both the phony Hollywood exorcist films and the phonies who populate the world of Pentecostal preachers, and shoots itself in the foot by turning its back on the part of the film that exposed the snake-oil aspect to the exorcisms to only once again give us an unsatisfying familiar genre horror pic that sells its soul to the box office gods who never stray far from the bottom line and schlocky art.