The Last Exorcism - Patrick Fabian, Louis Herthum, Caleb Landry Jones and Ashley Bell
Cotton Marcus (Patrick Fabian), Louis Sweetzer (Louis Herthum), Caleb Sweetzer (Caleb Landry Jones) and Nell Sweetzer (Ashley Bell) © 2010 Lionsgate

Shot in the style of a documentary, The Last Exorcism follows Reverend Cotton Marcus (Patrick Fabian) who, after years of parting desperate believers with their money, is determined to make things right by filming a confessionary movie which debunks exorcisms.

He and a film crew go to a rural Louisiana farm to ‘perform’ a routine exorcism. There he meets Louis Sweetzer (Louis Herthum), who is certain his daughter Nell (Ashley Bell) is possessed by a demon. Confident that the girl is only suffering from a mental illness, Cotton is stunned to be confronted by an evil that nothing could have prepared him for, and he and his crew must find a way to save Nell, and themselves, before it’s too late.

Patrick Fabian is familiar to TV viewers of Big Love, Veronica Mars, 24 and Joan of Arcadia, where he had recurring roles. I spoke with him about his uncanny performance as Reverend Cotton Marcus.

The movie’s director, Daniel Stamm, said when you were auditioning he asked you to do a sermon and you did 10 minutes. Were you expecting that he was going to ask for something like that?

The Last Exorcism - Patrick Fabian and Ashley Bell
Patrick Fabian and Ashley Bell © 2010 Judy Sloane

No, that was my second time back in. The first time I just came in and Ashley was there, and I was told that Ashley was sick and I needed to convince her to go to see a doctor.

He then told me to come back with a 10 minute sermon. I thought, ‘Oh, I have to look at the Bible,’ and then I realized, ‘I can talk about anything I want.’ So if I needed a quote, I made one up, very much like Cotton Marcus. I was like, ‘I’ll just take a song lyric and put Lord in it!’

Did you base Cotton on someone like Marjoe Gortner? I know his documentary, Marjoe, was an inspiration for this movie.

Daniel had told me to look at that film and what was great about that was he was a preacher by default, it was a family business. He could have been a farmer, but his dad was a preacher, so that’s what he was doing to pay his rent.

Cotton runs into a crisis both with his faith and a midlife crisis, what am I doing and what is my truth? I looked at Burt Lancaster in Elmer Gantry, because he was the kind of guy that even if he killed somebody you’d say, ‘Oh, but he’s a good guy.’ And I think Cotton Marcus had to have that quality in order to bring you into the story, so you can go and meet the unknowable down at the Sweetzer farm.

The film has an improvisational feel to it – how much was the script rehearsed?

The Last Exorcism - Patrick Fabian and Ashley Bell
Cotton Marcus (Patrick Fabian) and Nell Sweetzer (Ashley Bell) © 2010 Lionsgate

In rehearsal, almost none. We would talk about what was going on and Daniel talked about the points we’d need to emphasize, because we’d do twenty or thirty takes. The exorcism scene a lot of times we certainly were on script as a road map, but there would be times we’d improvise our way off, sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse.

And that backbend Ashley does, (which she brought to the table) is so iconic; it is the image of the film. It’s the best horror poster of the last ten, twenty years. It was not CGI; she did those physical things on the set. It made my job a thousand times easier. I just had to show up and react. I would love to say that I’m a very good actor. I was just creeped out and scared. It’s three in the morning, we’re in the barn, and she’s ‘changing,’ let me out of here! So I can’t thank her enough for being so committed to the role, otherwise the film doesn’t work.

What was the hardest scene for you to do?

There were two days where we did preaching, and I preached myself hoarse basically. Instead of doing all the wonderful theatre training that I have to protect my voice I was just screaming and yelling like a kid and I lost my voice for a little bit.

Did you shoot this chronologically?

Yes, because Daniel had been uniquely shooting in this style, I don’t think there were a lot of other cooks in the kitchen to say, ‘You need to do it this way.’ It was his way. He and Zoltan (Honti – Director of Photography) had worked together on their first time, A Necessary Death, which was unique in its own right, and I think the producers were able to take their hands off a little bit. So they shot the story top to bottom.

It says in the press kit that you actually watched real exorcisms online. What was the creepiest part about doing that?

There were actually some priests’ logs they were keeping on exorcisms and they weren’t meant for public eyes, they weren’t meant to be published, so they’re not being written with an eye towards tantalizing or intriguing. They are just very antiseptic about what’s going on, and that was the most frightening thing about it. The idea of a priest sitting down at 6 a.m. and writing, ‘At 4 a.m. this came out of their mouth.’ You feel like you’re getting a window into something you weren’t supposed to see.

Because of the documentary aspect of this film, you do feel as if it could really be happening.

Which is the hallmark of a good horror film, right? If it could really happen, then it means it could happen to me or you, and that’s what makes people scared.

Judy Sloane

Judy is Film Review Online's regular Los Angeles based reporter.