The Last Exorcism was the weekend's most popular movie, and the crazy ending had people debating what it all meant. We talked to director Daniel Stamm, who gave his perspective - and told us why horror needs realism. Major spoilers!
Daniel Stamm has been freaking audiences out with his disturbing fauxumentaries since his cult film A Necessary Death, about a film crew documenting the final days of a suicidal person. The catch? The person wants to die by answering an ad online from somebody looking for a willing victim to kill. (It's based on a famous case in Germany where a man killed someone who had answered a similar ad.)
I asked Stamm about his interest in the documentary style, especially for horror movies, which aren't exactly known for their realism.
The way it happened with my first film is that I came out of film school and said let's not fall into the trap of waiting for somebody to give us a huge amount of money to make a movie. So we couldn't do a project that costs a lot of money – our starting point was to create a style that worked well without lights, with video. But out of necessity came passion for this different way of working. There is no waiting for four hours for lighting a closeup. You're focused on actors. You can do thirty takes if you want. There's no need to use a dolly or crane. And then the handheld camera for horror - it really adds something. It emphasizes the vulnerability of the audience. They're not protected by the fourth wall that normally keeps them out of the movie. It makes you aware you're only seeing a little square on the screen, that there's a lot more going on outside the frame.
And what about when the camera actually became a murder weapon in The Last Exorcism, when Nell uses it to kill the family cat?
I wanted to force the audience to become an accomplice in murder, to become murderers themselves. That was an intense scene because when they brought in the cat - well, it looks exactly like my cat. And it was named Daniel. I thought, there is some kind of message for me in this [laughs].
I thought the movie's ending, where Cotton and the filmmakers stumble into a Satanic ritual, was ambiguous. Though a lot of people said, "OK, it really is Satan at work here," I thought you could still read the final scene as a bunch of crazy people. We've already seen how much showmanship goes into an exorcism, so I figured the minister could have been doing what Cotton had done earlier, using chemicals to make the fire leap really high. He could even have induced a miscarriage in poor Nell to create the "demon baby" illusion. So I asked Stamm if it was intentionally ambiguous or not. He felt that the ending was ambiguous, but for very different reasons than I did. He was certain, in the end, that Satan was truly involved. The ambiguity for him was Cotton's rekindled faith.
Ambiguity, to me, is the movie. I knew Ashley [Bell, who played Nell] needed to be somebody who would hold up to the audience's investigation of the question [of whether she was possessed or schizophrenic]. That informed everything. We couldn't use special effects for the possession scenes - we couldn't have her head spin off. So that was the question that would keep the audience involved. I like that the ending is controversial.
If we're telling a story about a minister who has lost his faith, and at the last minute he has a demon in front of him, is that too late for him to regain faith? That's not faith anymore if you see [a demon]. The question to me is whether God will help him. Or will he say, "That's a little late to call for my help." That's an important question, such an important question about faith, and that's the ambiguity about Cotton.
We also left open what's happening with Nell. People found the ending too abrupt, but you can't tie the story up neatly if your photographer is killed. If you and I walked into a devil worshiper mass, we wouldn't know what was going on. We wouldn't understand where to point the camera, and who the big boss is. We would never understand it. That to me is the meaning of the ending.
I don't want to solve the ambiguity. But if you watch the movie carefully, a lot is explained when Nell is asked about Caleb – she says he was so destroyed by his mother's death that he started hating God. So that's why Caleb joined the cult. Was she also part of the cult, or was she a victim that her brother used to implant the demon spawn? We don't know.
The conversation turned back to the meaning of faith. I told Stamm that I thought of Cotton as a kind of born-again skeptic, and that the movie is about his faith in skepticism and science being tested. Stamm confirmed, "That's completely true - I've never heard anyone put it that way, but it is true."
Then he elaborated on how he wanted to portray faith:
All I'm doing is trying to make an argument for both sides, to be fair and eloquent. The believer isn't the backward character – it turns out Louis is right. If you make argument for both sides then believers and non-believers can understand. [The sad part is that] if both sides had compromised, they could have saved Nell. But they were coming from different directions. It's a metaphor for politics, where it's about battling the other side rather than solving the issue. That leads to tragedy.
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Finally, I wondered why he thinks realism is so important right now in the horror genre, which is so often full of unrealistic plot elements.
With a normal movie you can say it's just a movie – the more special effects they throw in, the more it separates you from what's going on. But with realism, and the documentary style, It feels like the real world. Not cinematic artifice.
We had a real exorcist on set while we were shooting to advise us, because you want the exorcism to feel real too. The exorcist was from Louisiana - he was the brother of our driver. It was his day job, helping people by exorcising demons. He really thought of it as ordinary and non-fascinating.
What's next for Stamm? Another supernatural project is in the works, which will be his first film shot in a non-fauxumentary format.