With The Last Exorcism, Eli Roth and Daniel Stamm have the devil on their side. Paul Byrne keeps his distance.
Breathing some new life into a well-worn genre, slick new horror flick The Last Exorcism may not exactly reinvent the wheel, but it does deliver when it comes to thoughtfully, methodically and mercilessly scaring the bejasus out of its audience. Which may explain why it’s currently sitting pretty at no.1 in the US.
Somewhere between Rosemary’s Baby and The Blair Witch Project, director Daniel Stamm and producer Eli Roth prove that there you can have both smarts and scares in a modern horror flick.
“I think there are always new ways to frighten people,” says Roth, who broke through with Cabin Fever and Hostel, and was recently on our screens as the baseball bat-weilding Sgt. Donny Donowitz in Inglorious Basterds. “Once you have a love for a genre, you’ll find a way. You want to play to horror’s strengths, but, at the same time, you want to add a few new twists.”
“Not that there are any great leap forwards here,” says director Daniel, making his Hollywood debut his award-winning 2008 mock-doc A Necessary Death. “It’s like rock’n’roll – you just find something that excites you, and then, hopefully, the audience will be excited too.”
PAUL BYRNE: It’s rare that critics get a hard-on about horror these days, so, what’s your secret? ELI ROTH: Well, obviously, we’re very proud of the film, and most proud of the fact that we’ve managed to do something different. Every time I get involved in horror, I’m always keen to evolve it, to push it forward, in some way. And it’s really to the credit of producer Eric Newman – this whole conception was his. He wanted to do this documentary of an exorcism that goes wrong, and when the script was finished, that’s when I came in. The studio would give it the greenlight if I was attached, and originally, it was the writers who were going to direct it, but another greenlit script took them away, and it wounded up being the best thing that could have happened to the project. We were truly lucky that we ended up with Daniel Stamm, who did such an amazing job. He took an incredible script and elevated it to something spectacular. More than we could have ever hoped…
It takes some balls to try and come up with a movie about an exorcism, considering the greatest horror movie of all time might just be The Exorcist… ER: Absolutely. We struggled with that for quite a while, but then it occurred to me, don’t try to be scarier than The Exorcist, but do something that’s different, that’s original, and that will stand on its own two feet. We wanted to make something that felt real. If The Exorcist is the Hollywood movie version, this is what it would look and feel like if you walked into a room and there was an exorcism going on. Daniel surprised us all though, and took it to another level…
The ambiguity at the end is crucial, right? DANIEL STAMM: We wanted this to have audiences unsure as to what was really going on here. Everyone brings in their own beliefs, and we wanted to ask more questions than give answers. So, that was the aim with the ending.
The pseudo-documentary has taken quite a hold in horror – Paranormal Activity, [REC], Cloverfield, The Blair Witch Project; it’s already a genre that’s in danger of repeating itself? DS: I think you have to be aware of what’s already out there, but it is a format, it is a style, that already exists. But, within that, you can deliver any kind of movie you want. Paranormal Activity is very different to Cloverfield, or The Blair Witch Project, or whatever. It’s an incredible technical exercise in timing, in rhythm and expectation, but it has nothing to do with acting, for example. The Blair Witch is the same thing. With The Last Exorcism, it’s very much about the acting, and the writing. So, it’s a very different movie. Just the same format. ER: Obviously I’m very familiar with the horror genre, and if you want to add to the pile, you want to do something that’s original. There’s always going to be a certain element of crossover, but look at the vampire genre. Look where Dracula started in the late ’20s, and look at what it has evolved to today, with kids flocking to see Twilight. So, there’s clearly something about vampires that fascinates generation after generation, and I believe that the same is true for possession. It’s something that’s very real, and it’s very much part of modern society, and it’s something that people are very interested in. What I loved about the script is the psychiatric approach. The person who believes that Nell is crazy is the Reverend. It’s not the Reverend coming in and saying, ‘This girl is possessed by the devil’. He’s saying that she’s crazy, her father’s crazy, and we need to get her to a psychiatrist. And the father wants nothing to do with that; he knows that she’s possessed. That leaves the audience having to constantly guess which side the daughter is on. And the actors take you there, which is somewhat to Daniel’s credit.
I’m wondering what Dr. Sheldon Roth would have to say about this film – the Church is dead? The Church is corrupt? Isolation breeds extremism? ER: My father loved it, my father loved it. Even though he’s a psychoanalyst, he loved the fact that the movie, at its core, is all about faith. Cotton never really has faith in religion in the entire film. My father was brought up Orthodox Jewish, so, he does have the psychiatric background, and the religious background, and he just loved the battle of both sides here. The film feeds both arguments, and is fair and intelligent to both sides.
The new religion that this generation care about most is celebrity – Eli, you just got married to Peaches, daughter of Ireland’s greatest living saint, Sir Bob of Geldof. Any struggles with fame yet? ER: No struggles whatsoever. I think I’m just about famous enough. The people that recognise me are generally fans, or they recognise me from Inglorious Basterds, and they’re wonderful things to be recognised from. But I’m certainly not famous enough to be bothered by people. In fact, I love talking about movies, so, if people if recognise me, they generally just want to geek out about films. So, that’s been great. At thirty years old, I was broke, and couldn’t pay my $700-a-month rent. So, to be here, at 38, where I’m now getting known as a writer, director, producer, actor, em, it’s very satisfying. Because this is my dream, and I’m getting to live it.
Has Peaches gotten you over to Ireland yet? ER: No, and I’d like to go, because I know her grandfather is there, and I’d like to meet him. I think he’s a 137 now…
Daniel, you were a peace worker in Belfast for two years. Any connection to your stepping into the horror genre? DS: No direct connection, no. As a male in Germany, coming out of school, you still have to join the army, or some kind of civil service. So, I knew I had to do that, so, I thought I might as well do it abroad, learn the language, and live with people that I hadn’t live with for 20 years. So, I went to work in a pre-school over there for two years. It was a good learning experience.
Words – Paul Byrne The Last Exorcism is at Irish cinemas from Sept 3rd