Photo: CBS StudiosIn case you were wondering -- why, yes, that is actually Ashley Bell contorting her body into the shape of a "2" in the deliciously disturbing poster for "The Last Exorcism Part II." Who needs Photoshop when you've got the Devil in you, after all?
Actually, that second part isn't exactly true -- there's no actual demonic possession going on with the Santa Monica-born actress, who reprises her role as poor Nell Sweetzer in the horror sequel. Just a lot of really, really intense physical and psychological training, which began during preparation for the original 2010 film, "The Last Exorcism," a redemption fable in which Cotton Marcus (Patrick Fabian), a P.T. Barnum-like preacher man and charlatan exorcist, must step up and actually become the man he's been claiming he is when he comes across a woman who's chock full of bad spirits -- like, for real.
"It was great to be able to get the opportunity to do my own stunts and everything," said Bell in a recent interview with Yahoo! Movies. "Early in my research, I read that the people that get possessed by the Devil, their body turns into a battleground. And I thought to myself, 'What would that look like?' So, as I was preparing, I thought, 'Well, I'm just going to prepare for everything. I don't know what they’re going to ask me to do on set.'"
Director Daniel Stamm and his creative team, including producer Eli Roth, asked Bell to do quite a lot on set, including to twist and contort her body into seemingly impossible shapes, scurry up walls, press against the corner of the ceiling -- all kinds of extreme physical acts designed to bring a sense of intense authenticity to the found-footage horror film.
"I stumbled, in my research, on a book called 'The Art of Hysteria.' It depicts doctors' images of women going through hysterical fits when they were trying to figure out what hysteria was. These were real photographs, and yet their bodies could not be more contorted from their backs down to the tips of their fingers. And these are real. It was very important, Daniel and Eli had both said, that since this was shot documentary style, we must make this as real as possible. So I looked at this book on hysteria, and I also looked up epileptic fits, manias, seizures and any kind of odd or repetitive motions."
Bell was also asked for her own creative input and was given the chance to try any other moves she could manage, which often resulted in some last-minute script adjustments ... and some nifty marketing images.
"I was working on that backbend and several other physical things, and the night before the big exorcism scene, Daniel Stamm had said, 'Do you have anything you want to try?' and I said, 'Well, I can do this,' and I did that backbend in the hotel lobby, and he said, 'Okay, you just stay there. I'm going to rewrite this thing.' And I had no idea that it would become the poster and such a huge part of the film and everything. It was a tremendously open experience to be able to contribute that and have it make such an impact."
Indeed, "The Last Exorcism" made quite the impact, with Bell earning an MTV Movie Awards nomination for Best Scared-As-S**t Performance and an Independent Spirit Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress. The film also inspired all sorts of rather extreme reactions from horror audiences.
"A group of people in a theater got down and started to pray," Bell reveals. "I didn't witness this, but I read about it, and I was like, 'Oh my dear lord!' I think the cool thing was the scope of audience that the first film attracted. I was at a movie hop the first night [of the film's release], and I got swarmed by a group of teenage girls that had gone together to get scared to death, and they saw me and they charged me. They all started screaming, and I was so excited. It was the first time I’d gotten recognized, and I started screaming."
While Cotton Marcus was the protagonist and tragic hero of "The Last Exorcism," Nell Sweetzer takes more of center stage in "The Last Exorcism Part II." And Bell bent even further backwards for her return as the young woman who's still literally battling with her demons.
"Nell does take more of a central role in this story. There was a new director involved, Ed Gass-Donnelly, [and] he had such a strong idea about where he wanted to take the story next and innovate on the first one that I felt in such safe hands. It was exciting to see where Nell would be physically and psychologically and emotionally after being so shattered by her experience. And that opened up almost a whole new set of questions and a whole new character to build. She had been absolutely broken, and I was figuring out and looking at what to bring to Nell, how to best put this broken girl back together again. The whole atmosphere was so creative."
Not surprisingly, Bell isn't allowed to reveal any plot details of the sequel, though it sounds like we're in for another unsettling cinematic experience.
"I always have a feeling when I talk that Eli Roth is tapping my phone call. Did you see 'Hostel'? That’s what will happen to me if I reveal any of the plot details," Bell laughs. "I think what’s cool about this story is that Nell's in a halfway house in New Orleans, and she's almost becoming a modern Eve. It's almost her coming-of-age. She has to make a choice to resist or to give in to all the temptations presented by the Devil, and it's a tremendous battle both psychologically, physically. The Devil's temptations are everywhere.
"When I read the first script, I was scared, but when I read the second script, it was at night, and I think by the end of it, all the blood had slowly frozen or drained out of my body. It's scary. It's a whole new take on it. Where the script goes in this story, I had no idea where it was going while I was reading, and yet they were so completely faithful to the first film. It has huge scares!"
And Bell hasn't completely walked away from this experience without a few real-life scars of her own, so to speak.
"I went to the doctor a couple months after filming [the first film], and I found that I had a stress fracture in my spine. They said, 'It's found in gymnasts and football players and girls that are in gymnastics and hyper-contort with backbends or anything like that. Does any of that sound familiar to you?' And I was like, 'No ... well, there's one thing that comes to mind ..."
"The Last Exorcism Part II" will commence with haunting theaters on March 1. In the meantime, check out the trailer: