Actress Ashley Bell is double-jointed, but she usually shows off her talents only at parties.
That changed when Bell auditioned for the role of Nell in The Last Exorcism, the faux documentary about a holy man’s attempt at confession. The production likely shaved a few bucks off the budget by casting an actress who could contort her body in ways that made it look as if the devil had her in his grip.
Look ma, no CGI!
Bell, nominated for a Film Independent Spirit Award for her performance, spoke with Screen Rant to promote The Last Exorcism's January 4th DVD/Blu-ray release.
The film follows a guilt-ridden minister (Patrick Fabian) who hires a documentary filmmaker to capture his final, fraudulent exorcism ritual. But Nell, the young woman he chooses for his last hurrah, may in fact be possessed.
Bell didn’t rely solely on her physical gifts to nail the part. She says she listened to audio tapes of so-called exorcisms, attended “extremist” churches and studied cases of women suffering from seizures.
“From the second I read the character breakdown I become obsessed. I wanted to play Nell so badly,” Bell says.
Director Daniel Stamm encouraged his cast members to try any approach they thought would heighten the fright level. That meant sometimes shooting a particular scene 30 to 40 times to get the best take. Improvisations were more than welcome.
“The night before the second exorcism scene I had been working on a back bend. [Daniel] said, ‘great, let’s use it,‘” Bell recalls.
She credits Exorcism producer Eli Roth (Cabin Fever, Hostel), who she watched work in the editing room, for massaging the maximum scares from the material.
“There really is a definite science to how much to tell and when [in a horror film],” Bell says. “He so knows the genre … he took a scene and literally shaved something off a clip, and the scene became terrifying instantly.”
The Last Exorcism DVD/Blu-ray release features a bevy of items for horror junkies, including Bell's audition clip, two commentary tracks and a teaser she shot to promote the film at the Cannes Film Festival.The film lacked recognizable stars and a mainstream movie budget - Bell says the cast worked without a hair and makeup team on set and it’s that rare horror movie not based on an 80s slasher movie or video game. Ultimately a perfect storm of talent, viral marketing (Roth lit his Twitter feed afire to promote the film) and luck helped The Last Exorcism earn a tidy $41 million.
Part of the film’s appeal, unlike other shockers trying to wring scares out of the exorcism genre, was not to follow in the footsteps of the classic 1973 film, The Exorcist.
Director Daniel Stamm specifically told his cast to watch as many previous exorcism-related movies prior to the shoot and then “don’t do that,“ Bell recalls.
“He had set out to make something completely different,” she says.
Bell’s next role, in the post apocalyptic film The Day, once again asks her to test her physical limits. She lost weight, took shotgun training and learned how to roll her own cigarettes for a role she describes as a “bad ass.”
“I’m praying my next film is a physical comedy. I‘d like to be able to laugh and trip and fall over furniture,” Bell says.
You can pick up The Last Exorcism today, Jan 4th, on DVD/Blu-ray.