Just because 2010's "The Last Exorcism" was called "The Last Exorcism," doesn't mean the story was over.
Neil Sweetzer (played by Ashley Bell) has survived the terrifying backwoods horror that befell her family and Reverend Cotton Marcus and returns for another round of Satanic dread in "The Last Exorcism Part II" , opening in theaters this weekend.
At the helm of this potential franchise is Eli Roth, who made his name first as a director (with the "Hostel" series), then as an actor ("Inglourious Basterds") and is now taking on the job of producer. In addition to the "Last Exorcism" series, you'll find Roth's producer credit attached to several upcoming horror movies from rising new directors.
Roth spoke with Moviefone about how important it is to have new voices in horror, why "The Last Exorcism" has a better shot at connecting with young audiences than "The Exorcist" ever will, and how he topped the legendary Werner Herzog while filming his upcoming cannibal shocker "The Green Inferno."
"The Last Exorcism" ended on a very crazy note. How intimidating was it to try and top that for a sequel?
It was certainly daunting and we wouldn't have called it "The Last Exorcism" if we had a sequel planned. We wanted to tell an open-ended story that was very dark and very messed-up. The first one was very much about the mystery of "Is this girl crazy or is she actually possessed?" And now that we've answered that question we thought "How can we continue the story?" And the breakthrough was "Let's not treat it as another documentary."
In the narrative of this movie, the first movie exists but as a crazy YouTube video. It's a viral video that people watch, and they recognize her and think it was all a joke. "Do that thing where you break your fingers!" Nobody actually believes that she was possessed but the audience knows she was. Once we had that breakthrough we thought "let's explore her story." We love the idea of what would happen if you had this thing inside you, that wants you to love it and you slowly start to realize that you're better off embracing it.
What is it about the theme of Satanic horror that appeals to you?
A good portion of the world goes to church on Sunday and believes in Heaven and Hell. Everyone thinks about death and what happens to your spirit after you die. Possession movies also tap into a real, strange primal fear that something else comes inside your body. It happens when you have a disease and something invades you or when you lose your mind or have dementia. It's this deep-seated fear that you lose control of your body and your soul. Exorcism is a real thing done in every religion all over the world, and still being practiced today. In 2008, the Pope said "We need to train more exorcists and put them out into the world." Exorcism is alive and well.
So many modern possession movies still live in the shadow of "The Exorcist," "Rosemary's Baby," and "The Omen." What pitfalls do you need to avoid as a filmmaker to not come off as a retread?
You have to be aware of those films and be respectful of them. The best thing you can do is come up with an original, fresh way to deal with it. We made a conscious decision in the first one to not have any deep, possessed voice. That back-bending that Ashley did -- she suggested it, it wasn't even in the script. And it became the signature of the movie. A lot of that came from the improv of the film; you never know what's going to capture people's imagination.
You also have to be aware of the modern audience. I'm forty-years-old so I have that reverence but if you talk to fourteen-year-olds, they couldn't care less about them. They have maybe heard of "The Exorcist" or "Rosemary's Baby," but those films aren't relevant to them. They're not a part of their life, they're not a part of their culture. So I think we're only in the shadow of those movies to people of a certain age, but the young movie-going population wants their own "Exorcist." And that's what we're making movies for: it's for teenagers and college kids, it's PG-13 exorcism movies. And if they like it, they can go back and watch the older ones and get in fights with their parents about which one is better.
Speaking of appealing to modern horror audiences: You're going to attempt a cannibal horror film with "The Green Inferno." Are you looking to update "Cannibal Holocaust" for the modern 14-year-old?
"Green Inferno" is not an homage. "Cannibal Holocaust" is one of my favorite movies, but it's very much of its time. Just like "Paranormal Activity" is an updated version of "Poltergeist," I'd only do a movie if I had a modern take on it. I look at "Django Unchained" and Quentin is personalizing it and making it a modern movie set in that world.
As for "The Green Inferno," I went into the Amazon farther than anyone has gone to film a movie before. I went into a village where there was no electricity, no televisions and these people had never seen a movie before. We had to explain the concept of a movie to them. We brought a TV and generator and showed them "Cannibal Holocaust" -- and they thought it was a comedy. It was fascinating to spend the time in the Amazon with these people acting in this movie, and seeing life from their perspective, watching them experience an iPhone.
The film is about modern activism, people love to be "Twitter activists" and hit the retweet button and latch onto a cause because it's sexy, without researching it. And that's what happens to the students in this movie; everyone wants to save the uncontacted tribe, but what would happen if your plane crashes and you're taken by the very people you're trying to save? The last movie that filmed anywhere near where we were was Werner Herzog's "Aguirre, the Wrath of God." Thank god we survived; we were filming with poisonous snakes and tarantulas. I said "If Herzog went here, then I wanted to go a mile further than Herzog."
You've gotten very prolific as a producer. What's been the biggest challenge with taking on that job?
I'm glad it seems that way because everything that I spent years developing hit at the exact same time. The first "Last Exorcism" has a lot to do with that; after you make a movie for one and half million and it opens at twenty million, suddenly everybody wants to make movies with you. And all this other stuff you had cooking -- it goes at once. The biggest challenge for me has been trying to find the time to do it all because I only have a certain amount of bandwidth. I'm very selective about the projects I do and I try to put everything I can into making them great, while supporting the director. I'm in a position where I can use my name to get financing for certain projects.
How important is it for you to be a shepherd for new voices in horror versus bankrolling those big blockbuster projects?
I've been offered a lot of those blockbuster projects, and for whatever reason I didn't do them yet. Because it didn't feel like the right project or the right combination of people, or I just wasn’t that in-love with the material. If you're going to commit a year and a half of your life to a project, you really have to believe in it. When a blockbuster works it's because you can tell the director really cares about the subject matter. Opportunities have come up but it's never been anything I was really passionate about. There are a lot of great filmmakers out there that need a leg up; I think what makes movies exciting is when you get new voices and new ideas coming in. That's essential to horror.
Lastly, since I know your fans are dying to know, what would it take to see the full-length "Thanksgiving" feature?
All I have to do is get the script, which Jon Watts and Chris Ford are working on right now. They just wrote "Clown" which we shot and wrapped in December, and Jon's editing right now. They're writing the script based on the treatment I wrote with my co-writer Jeff Randall who played the pilgrim in the trailer. Jon and Chris are writing a draft right now and as soon as it's in, I want to get into production. I want it to be worth the wait.