[THIS ARTICLE CONTAINS SPOILERS FOR THE LAST EXORCISM]
The Last Exorcism is a film that seeks to: Create an exorcism film with a unique voice, challenge its audience to confront their beliefs, and scare the crap out of viewers. The central focus of the film is faith, as it relates to the belief in the presence of evil. We explained The Last Exorcism ending in another article (click on the link to read it), but here we will go much more in depth and give you the answers directly from those involved with creating the movie.
The Last Exorcism takes the stance that there can be no light without darkness, no Heaven without Hell. Producers Eli Roth and Eric Newman seem to represent either side of the faith question; while director Daniel Stamm stands between these two positions as an open minded agnostic.
Eli Roth tells us, “It was Eric’s conception several years ago to make a film using the docu-style to tell an exorcism story; following this conception of the exorcism that goes completely wrong. It was Eric who knew to hire Andrew Gurland and Huck Botko to write the film – having seen their film Mail Order Bride which utilized the docu-style so effectively.” Newman also hired director Daniel Stamm to helm the film based on his award winning faux documentary drama A Necessary Death.
The docu-style filmmaking was utilized to help support the idea of realism, as well as heighten the fear, by bringing audience into the world of the exorcism. For Stamm, docu-style creates an intimacy with the audience where the camera stands in for us – creating a deeper immersion in the world of the film. The film’s creators wanted to use that immersion to engage the audience in dialectic on matters of faith and science.
The writers used the documentary film Marjoe as inspiration for the film. Marjoe is the story of a minister who allows a documentary crew “behind the curtain and lets you see the whole thing is a fraud.” The film serves as the basis for the character of Cotton Marcus, played by Patrick Fabian. A career evangelical minister who has come up against his “dark night of the soul,” Cotton is a man in the throes of an existential crisis. He comes from a long line of “exorcists” – a practice he now finds both dangerous and destructive. As part of his redemptive process Cotton decides to allow a documentary crew to capture the “tricks of his exorcism trade” on camera, thus exposing the “reality” to the world.
The film establishes the premise that (according to Cotton’s evangelical ministry) if you believe in God you must also believe in the devil and, subsequently, demons. Therefore to renounce all demon possession as cons, and/or psychological breaks, also in a sense, renounces faith altogether. Fabian believes, “This is a film about how you perceive good and evil. It’s about what your convictions are and if they’ll come through for you when you need them most.”
Cotton’s confrontation with young Nell Sweetzer becomes the outward manifestation of his internal crisis of faith. Director Daniel Stamm says: “Throughout the film, the question is: Is it supernatural or is it human evil? Is Nell schizophrenic or is she possessed?”
During the exorcism sequences, filmmakers specifically stayed away from using any shots that would lock the story into a supernatural explanation. The marketing for the film is a bit misleading in that regard. There are no shots of Nell upside down or twisted on a ceiling in the final film – though these images dominate the marketing materials. In point of fact, Ashley Bell was instructed to “watch every exorcism movie and [then] don’t do that. So it was from the outset to do something really different.”
In preparation for her role as Nell Sweetzer, Ashley Bell was directed to look at both real exorcism documentation as well as psychological disorders that could account for her behavior. She seems to feel that either explanation is plausible. She claims to have “had a book called the invention of hysteria which induced hysterical shocks in women to try and get them out of their human forms. Having those pictures running through my head of real people that are contorted, or don’t look like humans anymore, was really helpful to try to give it that real feel.”
When it came to the exorcism research Bell says, “You are listening to sounds that could be made by humans, and then comes this sound that is neither masculine or feminine, animal or human – it’s just primal. Or not even that, and you just say ‘What is that noise? Where did it come from?’ and it’s very creepy. Even in talking to people who have been around exorcisms, they don’t want to talk about it. They would be nervous to tell me what they had been through and seen because they would be scared it would come back. Or they would be scared to go back there, scared that they were susceptible.”
In keeping with the sense of realism, there was no make-up used on the actors. The contorted positions Ms. Bell creates are thanks to her years of ballet and a naturally double jointed body. Eli Roth feels that, “With the absence of the makeup, and what Ashley does, you think, ‘oh my God, either this girl is possessed or she is truly experiencing a psychotic break.’ But it doesn’t matter because this guy (Cotton) can’t handle either and if he can’t get her to stop – that guy (Luis) is going to shoot her and that’s all there is too it.”
The dynamic between Cotton and Luis creates the initial tension in the scene. It is this point in the film where, as Roth says, “everyone’s belief in science or religion has clashed and they never see each others point of view and that is what ultimately leads to their downfall.”
The onset of the second exorcism scene felt like the pinnacle moment in the film. For me, one of the film’s greatest opportunities was lost here. Had they built the climax directly from this moment of confrontation between Luis (“faith”) and Cotton (‘science’), with the life of a young woman on the line, the conclusion would have had a greater impact. Both sides of the metaphysical argument, as represented by these men, are equally well intentioned and equally flawed and limited.
I would have loved to have seen the tension ratcheted up to a point where the same tragic conclusion is reached for the documentary crew. Yet the question of cause is far more nuanced. Is it the stubborn hubris of each of these individuals that created the tragedy or was it indeed the hand of evil at play? And what is the difference between the two? The introduction of all the additional characters, as well as the bait and switch with Pastor Manley in the final scene, took away from the gorgeous portrait of this one man facing the external expression of his internal “demons” – at least for me. However listening to Eli Roth’s interpretation of the last scene does add an interesting element to the film’s conclusion – one that wasn’t entirely apparent watching it.
Each of the film’s creators has a different take on the conclusion and final message. Eric Newman says, “I’m not really a believer in exorcism. I believe in psychiatry. I’m spiritual but I generally think that most religions, certainly in their most fundamental forms, are getting it wrong.”
Eli Roth takes the stance of a believer. For him the entire trajectory of the film has been one elaborate test of faith for Cotton. He feels that if, at any time in the process, Cotton and the documentary crew had chosen to believe then their lives would have been spared. That even the theatricality of the “Satanic Ritual” was a device to lure Cotton and the cameras in. The cheese in the mouse trap of destiny as it were.
Roth tells us that the “satanic” chanting in the final sequence is “banana bread, banana bread, banana bread.” As if the cult was somehow aware of Cotton’s “banana bread” sermon and were saying “were going to teach this guy a lesson.” The “banana bread” sermon is one of the film’s best moments, and as Eric Newman says, it is also a great example of Cotton’s hubris, “these are characters that think they are better than these hicks that they are going to grift.” For Cotton, his pride comes before his very hard fall.
Eli Roth’s take is that “(Nell) is possessed the entire time, and everything Louis says is true, and the whole thing is to teach Cotton a lesson. Even when he picks the letter it is some force that made him choose that letter, to go to this farm, to go do this thing, to test his faith. To see if he truly believes. And he fails at every turn because he thinks he’s smarter than everyone and then finally by the time the demon reveals itself, it’s too late. And then he finds God. But then it’s like – did you find God? That’s a reaction, that’s not true faith.”
When asked whether it was God or Satan conducting this test Roth responded, “That’s the question. Is it God or is it the cult?” Each individual’s take on the film seems to stem directly from their personal belief systems.
When asked if they were concerned about any “real demon activity on the set” Newman commented, “We weren’t making this movie with the studio so it’s very unlikely that any were going to show up.” And that was an eerie feeling in the area post Katrina. “He was never really worried about demons,” Roth countered “I did. I feel like I have a VIP pass to hell after the Hostel films so if we are going to show anything that has to do with Satan we better really, really represent his point of view very fairly.” Give the devil its due as it were.
One of the most fascinating phenomenons that the film addresses is the rise in the belief in and the occurrence of exorcisms. When asked why they think this is happening at this time in our history Newman responded, “A lot of it is fear based… The greatest human movements have been precipitated by bad s**t happening in the world. And the scarier things get the more people are looking for an explanation that of course doesn’t force them to look inward. And people start to embrace (sometimes for good, sometimes for bad) a different belief. Something that allows them to make sense of what their reality is. In the case of this story, this guy refuses to accept that there might be something wrong with his daughter. There might be something really wrong with his daughter. It’s easier for him to say, ‘we were doing fine until this demon showed up and led her astray.’”
Eli Roth adds, “I think 75 years ago evil had a very clear face. You know, you could say it was Hitler; you could visualize who was evil. Whereas now evil comes in so many forms. It comes in – not just terrorism but in greed on Wall Street and crimes in the schools or even in some churches. There are all kinds of evil and the devil becomes a focal point for that evil. So it becomes: ‘if we can fight that’ then evil overall will go down. But I think it truly comes from this lack of having this one person to pinpoint the evil on and therefore it goes to Satan.”
So the question becomes, what is the filmmaker’s stance on the existence and source of evil in our world?
The film purports to pointedly present an “absence of point of view” and agenda on the question of evil and faith. Roth says, “it presents both sides fairly and intelligently and lets them fight it out.” For many filmgoers it is difficult to imagine that the last sequence was not meant to depict some manner of supernatural event. The deaths that occurred were predicted, the fire reacted in an unnatural way, the “demon child” did not physically behave like a human embryo.
As stated, Eli Roth contends that the staginess of the last sequence is in a sense done for the benefit of Cotton, as a part of his “test” of faith. So truly for Roth, and director Daniel Stamm, the question is not if a demon made an appearance. The real question becomes: Will God come in and help Cotton at this point? Or is it too little, too late for his expression of faith?
What did you think of The Last Exorcism and its ending?