SPOILER WARNING: This blog very specifically discusses the ending of "The Last Exorcism." If you haven't seen the movie and plan to, read no further. Trust me, this isn't the sort of movie you want to have spoiled.
I spent a good amount of time on the phone yesterday with Daniel Stamm who is still buzzing after the strong opening weekend for "The Last Exorcism." Speaking from Europe, where he is currently promoting the overseas release, the director spoke at length about a dialogue that's been building among those who have seen the film about the ending. First, a quick refresher:
Our documentary crew, led by the preacher Cotton (Patrick Fabian), bears witness to the disturbing scene of a Satanic cult ceremony and Nell's (Ashley Bell) birthing of what appears to be a demon child. As predicted by her paintings earlier in the film, the camera operator's head is lopped off, the producer is hacked to pieces and Cotton is last scene walking towards the roaring fire, cross raised. We never learn his fate.
The last-minute switcheroo realization that Cotton and his pals have stumbled into a much larger plot -- and the fact that the movie ends on that note -- has spurred a growing dialogue about the film among those who have seen it. Opinions are all over the map, but one way or another: people care enough to be talking. That alone speaks volumes.
It turns out that Stamm has some very specific ideas about the ending and how he chooses to read it. Refreshingly, he was more than willing to share his thoughts on it during our chat. "What was important to me was that we send these two forces [Cotton and Nell's father Louis] on their journey, [those two forces standing for] the religion and the science," he explained. "The twist is that Cotton should be representing the religion, but he's really representing the science and the father is representing the religion."
It's true that the situation Cotton enters into escalates largely because of his inability to fix the situation and the resulting tension that his failure creates. Hearing Stamm say this, it becomes clear why the strong character development at play in "The Last Exorcism" is so very important.
"You make as eloquent and as intelligent and as fair a case as you can for both of them and then you have them collide and smash into each other, and you basically tell the story of how these two forces can't compromise," he said. "There's no dialogue between them. They're mutually exclusive so much that it leads to tragedy. Both [Cotton and Louis] want the same thing, both of them want to save the girl, but they can't because they basically cancel each other out. If Cotton had found his faith a little earlier, it might have all worked out, or if Louis had been open to compromise it might've worked out."
Stamm freely admits that in Cotton's case, "finding faith" might not be the best descriptor for his late-stage transformation. "Hell is basically opening up [in front of him], it's more of a reaction than finding faith, suddenly you believe in God because there's a demon in front of you... I don't know if that's really finding faith," he said.
Regardless, there was a very specific goal that the director had in mind for those final moments. "[Cotton] is walking towards the fire with the cross as it was predicted in [Nell's] paintings and he's asking for God to help him. And the reason that the ending is so abrupt is that I don't want to make a statement on whether God would help him or not."
"I don't know if God says, 'You are asking me for my help, I will help you, here I am,' or if he says, 'Dude, you figured this out a little late, why don't you take this one yourself, on your own,'" Stamm continued. "It was important to me that we don't see what becomes of Cotton, he might well live, he might well die, he might save Nell's soul. That's not for me to decide. It's important for the audience to fill in that gap... with their own belief system. If they are non-believers they will have a different opinion than they'll have if they're believers."
Stamm has also noted that the growing dialogue considers the change in tone in that final scene and the subsequent impact it has on how viewers perceive everything they've just seen. "You only understand in the very last moment what kind of movie you've been watching for 90 minutes," he said.
"You find yourself in this kind of 'Rosemary's Baby' Devil birth scene. I love that when we get there we go 'Ohhhh... that's the movie we've been watching, and I really didn't expect that.' It's almost a shift in genre in the very last seconds. Which is how the supernatural, I think, would present itself," he explained, adding, "If Hell suddenly opens up... the genre of what we are watching would suddenly shift."