"Ghost stories," complained Peep Show comedian David Mitchell, "are like an anthology of whodunits entitled Tales in Which the Butler Did it." The Exorcist has the same problem, taking two hours to build to the obvious conclusion, 'Hmmm, this girl could really use an exorcist.' At least The Last Exorcism has the good grace to ponder, 'Did the devil do it?' before answering, 'Er, yes.'
Director William Friedkin says The Exorcist investigates "the mystery of faith," but where’s the mystery? Father Karras (Jason Miller) almost loses his religion until a wanking antichrist vomits him back to God. Mystery solved. It’s a film about becoming certain. Daniel Stamm’s The Last Exorcism, meanwhile, explores the crimes committed in the name of certainty, depicting faith as both a tyrannical chain around poor Nell’s (Ashley Bell) skinny ankle and a benevolent white lie.
"The church doesn’t run on love," says The Last Exorcism’s Cotton Marcus (Patrick Fabian), a Baptist preacher – part charlatan, part saviour – who uses the devil’s tools (conjuring tricks) to do God’s work (bringing peace) for cash. The sadsacks and stereotypes populating The Exorcist can’t hope to compete with his flawed dynamism. "They get all the press because they’ve got the movie," decides Marcus of his Catholic rivals. He’s not wrong.
With a face like a smacked arse, and about half the acting range, Miller sucks the life out of Friedkin’s film; Regan (Linda Blair) is a spoilt little pony girl; Burke (Jack MacGowran), Karl (Rudolf Schündler), and Lieutenant Columbo, sorry, Kinderman (Lee J. Cobb) are all terrible cliches; and Father Dyer (William O’Malley) is Father Ted’s Dick Byrne with added jazz hands.
Clunkiness runs right through William Peter Blatty’s script, infecting the dialogue ("You’re the best we’ve got," Karras is told, as if being put back on the case by an angry police chief), the pacing (Max von Sydow’s titular Father Merrin vanishes for so long he needs a re-introductory scene 93 minutes in), and the plotting. When dramatic events happen off camera in The Last Exorcism it’s like we blinked and missed them. When they do in The Exorcist, it’s like Blatty did.
Though both films are essentially about child abuse, The Last Exorcism probes the evil that men do in the name of incest, ignorance, and religious intolerance, but the only thing animating The Exorcist (bar the nasty medical scenes and cheaty subliminal inserts) is a quasi-paedophilic prurience focusing on Regan’s violently hijacked sexuality ("Lick me!") and, in one egregious shot, her pants.
Freidkin’s trickbox is exhaustive, but Stamm shows us exorcism for what it really is – special effects – and what climaxes the former is merely pantomime in the latter. The abuser in The Exorcist might as well be an alien or an evil robot; the abusers in The Last Exorcism are Nell’s family and community – and that’s genuinely scary.
Frankly, if the greatest trick the devil ever pulled is making a posh teenager turn green, swear, and puke, we can all sleep soundly, levitating bed or otherwise. Or is it just me?