Horror director Eli Roth talks about producing The Last Exorcism, and the different faces of evil in 21st Century America
Looking at Eli Roth's trajectory since his low-budget debut feature, Cabin Fever, you might wonder whether the Jewish master of horror had made a pact with the Devil. With seemingly breathless ease, the garrulous Bostonian has established himself not only as a successful writer, director, and, with the Hostel films especially, outrageous goremonger, but thanks to his friend and mentor Quentin Tarantino, as an actor (Death proof, Inglorious Basterds) to boot. Now wearing the hat of producer, chatter on Twitter suggests that he is likely to have another hit on his hands, with The Last Exorcism.
“I've been joking that last summer Inglorious Basterds was my Jewish movie and this summer's my Christian movie,” chuckles Roth. “It's very different from anything that I have done in that's it's truly a psychological thriller. It's actually PG-13 [15 in the UK], so it's much more at the creepy end of the horror spectrum.” This is ironic given that in 2002, Roth was bemoaning the state of the American horror movie. “The problem,” he said then, “is that it has been so castrated and watered down that everything’s either PG-13 or the R-rated movies have no R-rated nudity in them, and they’re not scary.” He helped to change that with Hostel in 2005 - the gruesome film for which the media coined the phrase 'torture porn'. By contrast, The Last Exorcism has no nudity, no gore, and very little on-camera violence. But, as numerous tweets testify, it is skin-crawlingly creepy, with an atmosphere of dread that lingers after the lights go up.
Shot as a faux documentary, it follows a preacher who invites a camera crew along to film him exorcise a girl in rural Louisiana whose deeply religious father believes she is possessed. The twist is that Marcus Cotton lost his faith years ago and has been faking exorcisms ever since. The film will be his confession. However - surprise, surprise - things do not turn out the way he expects. “I think what's so cool is that we really made what I think is a very different kind of film,” enthuses Roth. “What is really fun is that it's the reverend saying, 'This is all nonsense, I have been cheating people and I feel terribly, and I'm going to show you how it's done to end the practice of exorcism once and for all.' And, of course, he encounters this girl he believes is crazy, but then it's revealed that maybe she is actually possessed.”
The idea of demonic possession has fascinated Roth ever since he watched The Exorcist aged six. The film's graphic depiction of possession rocked the scientific outlook he had inherited from his psychoanalyst father. “If someone was acting like another person, it was a mental illness,” he says. “Then I saw The Exorcist and I went, 'What the hell is this? You never taught me about possession.” His parents' response, he recalls laughing, was to tell him not to worry. “They said, 'That's for Christians. We're Jews. Jews don't believe in the Devil.'” Young Eli did, however, and he was terrified. “I went, 'I will be the Devil's test case for possessing Jews. Trust me, if the Devil possesses anyone, it will be me.'”
In a way, he was right. Reflecting on his three films today, he says they're all about possession of some sort. In Cabin Fever, a flesh-eating virus effectively possesses the bodies of a group of campers, while in the Hostel films, torturers control the bodies of their victims. “That was the essence of what made possession so very scary to me as a child: the total loss of control to another force, something coming from inside you, from within, and owning your body.”
This is a fear that many appear to share. In America, forty-two per cent of people believe in the Devil, claims Roth, while the last decade has seen an upsurge in the number of people claiming they are possessed. So great has the problem become there and elsewhere, that in 2008, at the same time as the producers of The Last Exorcist were looking for funding, the Vatican announced the establishment of a course for the training of exorcists at the Regina Apostolorum.
Even so, it was not the rising rate of exorcisms that Roth was aware of when the script came to him, he says, but the rise of religion. Seventy years ago, we knew what evil looked like, he suggests. “But today evil is not just in terrorism, it's in Wall Street, it is in greed, there's just this general sense that evil is on the rise and the only way people feel like they can take control of it is by countering it with religion and exorcism. Forty-two per cent of Americans believe in the Devil. Like they say in the movie, 'If you believe in God you believe in the Devil.' It's very real and very relevant.”
In The Last Exorcism, a charade turns into a clash between a believer and non-believer. Who is right and who is wrong is left for the viewer to decide. The film makes a case neither for nor against the existence of God. Whatever differences of opinion the film's makers might have had, they agreed that they had to make sure that the film answered story questions but didn't try to answer the bigger, “larger-than-life” questions. “Who are we to do that?” asks Roth. The result is an intelligent, creepy film that can be discussed, argued about and interpreted. “Someone told me it was a metaphor for Democrats and Republicans: they both want to help the US but have opposite ideologies and it's going to destroy the whole country because of it. That was certainly never our intent but that's what they got out of it," he says with pride. "So it's wonderful when you make a film and it really can actually reach people on many different levels.”
But does this mean he has left the gore behind him? Roth laughs.
“Have you seen my cameo [as the emcee of a wet T-shirt competition] in Piranha 3D? I love gore.”
© Stephen Applebaum, 2011