Aside from “The Crazies,” a little horror flick in which I happened to have a juicy cameo, [movie id="451734"]“The Last Exorcism”[/movie] might be the most memorable fright fest of the year.
But that’s coming from a person who doesn’t really like horror, at least not when it comes to limb-shredding, blood-gushing terror. I want storytelling creativity in my horror, characters I truly want to see survive, some reason to keep watching other than the dull, dumb pleasure-pain of watching other people suffer. That’s why I’m a “Last Exorcism” fan.
The film follows Cotton Marcus (Patrick Fabian), a disillusioned preacher and exorcist who hired a documentary crew to expose those who purport to exorcize demons from troubled souls. They head to rural Louisiana, where a young girl (Ashley Bell) is said to be possessed, though Cotton hardly believes any of it. You can, however, bet that things soon turn freaky … and that not everyone is going to live to see daylight.
I had a lot of questions about how director Daniel Stamm and his filmmaking team — including producer Eli Roth — pulled everything off, and Stamm, a German newcomer to the Hollywood scene, was happy to oblige in a recent conversation. Here are four “Last Exorcism” secrets revealed.
They Made No Cuts to Get a PG-13 Rating
After taking in a screening last week, I was shocked to realize the film wasn’t rated R. It was just too scary to think otherwise. Yet it’s actually PG-13, owing to a lack of foul language and very few bloody moments. But did Stamm have to cut anything out to get that rating? Turns out, they didn’t have to make any changes.
“We never shot for any particular rating,” Stamm explained. “I shot what I thought was scariest. To me, gore isn’t necessarily scary. It’s all about suspense and eeriness. It’s almost like shaking a bottle of Coke and the pressure builds up, but you keep the lid on it for as long as possible. Once you go into gore, you release that pressure and have to start all over again.
“There wouldn’t be any dirty language, because they’re on a farm of this very religious guy,” he added. ” ‘The Exorcist’ is a brilliant movie, but to me a demon is this timeless entity, and if a demon suddenly says ‘f—,’ that destroys the agelessness. I had no interest in having our demon use dirty language. When we were putting it together in the editing room, we thought this might very well be a PG-13 movie.”
There Is Only One Digital Effect
We live in an age of reliance — some might say over-reliance — on computer-generated special effects. But what’s often sacrificed with CGI is a gritty realness, which is why top-flight directors like Christopher Nolan use practical effects whenever possible, despite the often added expense.
Though he was hardly working with a budget on the scale of “Inception,” Stamm used only one visual effect in “The Last Exorcism”: to ramp up an enormous fire. What’s more, he barely used any special effects: one bloody cut, one bloody cow, one bloody cat, and one thing that will remain secret, lest we spoil the movie’s twisty ending.
For the special effects, Stamm recruited makeup effects guru Gregory Nicotero, who’s worked with nearly everyone in Hollywood, including Quentin Tarantino and Michael Bay.
“[Nicotero] sent the cow from Los Angeles in a huge box,” laughed Stamm. “He had his guy on set with the blood pump, who was all prepared to go full-out gore. It’s so tempting when you have a genius like that who can make anything look spectacular, but you always need to remind yourself to use restraint because that’s not the story you want to tell. Also, you don’t want to get into ‘Exorcist’ territory. We didn’t want to use any gimmicks. Our whole movie is based on the idea of whether she’s possessed or crazy, so we couldn’t have her levitate or have her head spin.”
She Did All Those Bends Herself
You can’t walk into a subway station in New York City without seeing the “Last Exorcism” poster: a black-and-white photo of Bell bending over backwards as the purported demon contorts her body. When this happens in the movie, it’s a shocking and scary moment. Turns out that this scene contained not a single visual effect and that Stamm didn’t even know he’d be able to pull it off until days before they shot it.
“She’s double-jointed,” he said. “I had no idea. I just cast her because she was brilliant. Two days before we shot the actual scene, which was planned completely differently, we were in the hotel lobby and I asked her if there was anything she wanted to try during the exorcism. She got up and said, ‘Why don’t I do this?’ and she bent over backwards in the hotel lobby. I ran back to my room and rewrote the scene and now it’s become the core of the movie.
“I made sure Patrick didn’t see that before the scene,” Stamm continued. “The first time he ever saw it was that first take. A lot of the stuff in the finished scene is from that first take because he just couldn’t believe what he was seeing.”
They Studied Horror Movies to Avoid Imitation
From “The Blair Witch Project” to “Cloverfield,” the faux-documentary movie has been used a ton, as has the exorcism plotline: “The Exorcist,” “The Exorcism of Emily Rose.” Stamm and his team were so adamant that they not repeat anything that’d come before that they watched all of these films and excised any points that felt duplicative.
“We made sure we weren’t doing anything in these other movies,” Stamm explained. “And I also gained new understanding of these movies. ‘Blair Witch,’ when I re-watched it, I realized for the first time what a smart film it is, how it’s so tense and smartly built.”
They did, however, make one exception. The townspeople who talk about myth and superstition in “The Last Exorcism” were directly inspired by the townspeople recounting the legend of the Blair Witch.
“We learned a lot from that,” Stamm said.
Check out everything we’ve got on “The Last Exorcism.”
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