Let's just stop for a moment: "...Reverend Cotton Marcus decides to reveal his fraudulence..." You wouldn't believe how much I wrangled over this ludicrous set-up. In the beginning of Daniel Stamm's The Last Exorcism, we see Reverend Marcus (Patrick Fabian) going about his day while explaining his manifesto. A family man with a beautiful wife and autistic young son; Cotton explains how his father groomed him to preach at a young age. He got very good at working parishioners into a lather with boisterous sermons and we witness him even throwing in nonsense about banana bread into his act on a bet. And it is an act, at least according to Cotton himself, who admits that he's providing a service that people want in the way they want it--both at the pulpit and as an exorcist. He's an entertainer with a conflict of belief, a "natural creative", as his wife puts it.
So what's wrong? At a certain point, Cotton, who says he believes in God, says that if you believe in Him you must also believe in Satan. Yet later on while talking about the illegitimacy of exorcism, states he doesn't believe in demons. This contradicting preacher is performing one "last exorcism" for a documentary to prove that those "possessed" actually have mental health issues. Here's the problem, despite stopping just shy of admitting he's a fraud, Cotton has no reason to expose himself as such a questionable believer on all fronts. Doing so would ruin his career, his source of income for his burgeoning family, and his father who appears to have a firm conviction in both his and his son's good work. But no, there's Cotton, laying it all out there in what seems like a big "fuck you" to everything he is with no remorse or penitence toward those he'll hurt by revealing his life's giant lie.
This is what hurts The Last Exorcism, which is like a found footage re-imagining of The Exorcist with an atheist view on established religion. I'm not saying this type of horror film need to thump a Holy Book, but there's no weight to Cotton as a man of God. Jason Miller's guilt-ravaged Father Karras in Friedkin's classic (that one can view in either perspective) is interesting because of this intense personal conflict, yet it's hard to care about the fundamentally flawed protagonist in Stamm's hodgepodge that also nods to Rosemary's Baby (1968), The Blair Witch Project (1999), and even Cannibal Holocaust (1980). This issue really becomes apparent at a pivotal moment in the climax so sudden that again, it's hard to feel anything for anyone involved. Or maybe it's just the fly-on-the-wall nature of this "raw feed" subgenre being unable to address such a subtle character arch/change...if there was one, that is...
Otherwise, the cast do a uniformly great job of acting like "real" people throughout. Especially Fabian, who gives Cotton just the right amount of realistic, likable spirit and gusto in spite of his character being approached the wrong way on paper. There's also some nice foreshadowing to the twist that comes with hindsight as the credits roll. The Last Exorcism isn't an essential re-combination of previous ideas and you'd be better served by re-visiting the other works mentioned above. While credit has to be given for this film going wide theatrically, it's just more "original" rehash for today's mainstream audiences who haven't and probably wouldn't dare endure the "old" flicks it's riffing from. Most of you reading have most likely already seen what Stamm's work has to offer.