Directed by Ed Gass-Donnelly
When The Last Exorcism opened in late summer of 2010, this reviewer honestly wasn’t expecting much from it. Though I’m a fan of Exorcism producer Eli Roth, there was little of interest to be found in the film’s marketing. It looked like a cut-rate, schlocky found footage version of the types of possession flicks you’d expect to see cluttering the bottom shelves of video rental houses (we still had a few of those around back then). Imagine my surprise then, when the film wound up being a well-made, well-acted, and genuinely scary little fright flick with a neat, simple story and characters that you actually care about. For the bulk of its running time, I genuinely dug the film and its choice to eschew the hokum associated with most flicks of this sort in favor of treating the grim subject matter as realistically as possible.
And then, that ending. Sigh. While the preceding eighty-odd minutes might have lulled one into thinking that the events of the film might have actually happened (for those willing to suspend disbelief, mind), the ending runs right off the rails into Crazy Land, with a satanic rite being performed by a cult in the middle of a forest, a demon baby ripped out of its screaming teenage mother, and a living column of hellfire rising high into the night sky. It was all kinds of batshit. I left the film disappointed, feeling as though the goodwill the movie had worked so hard to create had been undone by its silly ending (topped off with a Blair Witch-ish jog through the dark woods, no less). Oh, how I wished the movie had ended just a few minutes earlier, as a strong character piece that provided more than a few chills and scares. But, no. I’d have even been happy, I supposed at the time, if the film had gone further with that ending, if only by a few minutes more, just to explain itself and allow the audience a chance to acclimate to its massive change in tone from gritty realism to full-on supernatural horror. Maybe more, I thought, might have improved that finale.
“Be careful what you wish for,” they say.
Opening just minutes after Exorcism’s finale, Part II finds Nell Sweetzer (a returning Ashley Bell) shell-shocked and cowering in a local resident’s home that she’s just broken into. Nell is hospitalized, cleaned up, then shuttled off to a halfway house for wayward girls (The New Orleans Home for Attractive Dayplayers, I believe it’s called), run by The Fisherman from I Know What You Did Last Summer (Muse Watson, giving a perfectly solid performance here). No obvious attempts are made by the authorities to determine what led her to her present situation, nor to locate any remaining members of her family (like her crazy cult member brother, entirely absent in this film). Nell readjusts to normal life well enough by making friends with her fellow housemates, getting a job as a maid at a local hotel, and even going out on dates with a sweet enough young man (Clark) who’s nearly as shy as she. But, of course, things are not quite as they seem. A sinister presence stalks Nell wherever she goes, making itself known to her more and more, until it finally…
It’s not a bad setup for a sequel. In fact, the first half of the movie starts off strongly enough. The opening recap of the previous film is quite well-done and unnerving, the film’s first proper sequence is undeniably creepy, and a good chunk of the film’s first two acts is unrelentingly intense. But, while I appreciated the fact that the movie focuses solely on Nell and her reintegration into normal life for the first stretch of the film, this character-driven slow-burn approach the movie fosters eventually fizzles out before the third act even begins. The movie simply becomes a series of ho hum sequences strung together, culminating in yet another “last exorcism” that more than pales in comparison to the intense confrontation near the end of the previous film.
This might be fine, if any of those sequences were genuinely scary. Sure, the movie carries a feeling of dread throughout, but the shocks are only of the cheap, “Boo!” variety, and aren’t terribly effective even at that. Likewise, I might have given the movie a pass if the second half of the film felt as though any semblance of a story was being advanced. But again, no. What the film ultimately boils down to is – Abalam, the demon from the original film, has a newfound crush on Nell, and wants her all to himself (for either lovey-dovey or apocalyptic-y reasons…maybe both). To claim her, he intends to manipulate our poor heroine into choosing him over her old life and those who might save her (she has to choose to be his, you see). Meanwhile, the forces of good apparently keep watch over her until the plot needs them to step forward and execute the lamest exorcism ever. By the time we reach the final scene, this reviewer was yearning for the previous film’s bugnuts climax. It at least had energy.
And speaking of final scenes…the one this sequel offers up for us is interesting in theory, and probably looked fantastic on paper. But, sadly, it is ruined by an overreliance on CG, as are a few other scenes and would-be scares throughout the movie. The final shot could’ve potentially sent me out of the theater grinning ear to ear, even for all that had come before. Instead, due to the lazy effects work, it gets little more than a shrug. And guys, seriously, could we not afford real fire? Couldn’t break some glass practically? Boo, hiss.
So what does work? Ashley Bell, for one thing. She’s the movie’s best special effect. This reviewer had worried that her promotion from supporting actress to lead, given Exorcism hero Patrick Fabian’s absence, might have been too much for her to manage. Silly me. She’s fantastic here, ably carrying the film on her slight shoulders. Whether she’s contorting her body into stunning positions (all too seldom, this time around), or making us care about poor Nell Sweetzer with her poignant performance, the filmmakers owe her a great debt for making the film work as well as it possibly could.
The photography and score are worth noting, as well. Each is spare, yet beautiful in an understated way. Part II is a damned good looking film throughout, presented in a scope aspect ratio (further distancing this film style-wise from its found footage predecessor). The music, too, manages to be equally somber and hair-raising, all while staying entirely unobstrusive.
If only the rest of the film had been as successful. My issues with the film’s pacing, CG, and thin story aside, Part II makes some fairly bizarre choices during its brief running time. For one thing – there’s Nell’s father Louis (Herthum, also encoring), who appears to his daughter in her dreams. Or does he? No, he does. Right? Ah, who knows? If the character is real, it’s strange that he can now teleport from behind moving vehicles and conjure up a double-barrel shotgun when needed. If he’s a mere figment of Nell’s tortured imagination…then where the hell did his newly-grown beard come from? I nitpick, sure, but I had to keep my mind busy when the film was unable to.
Another bizarre sequence involves a random bystander on the streets of New Orleans recognizing Nell from a YouTube video culled from the footage that made up the initial movie. Not only does the scene ring false in every way possible, it almost seems designed to undermine the film’s intensity and pull viewers right out of the film. Why it was shot, let alone left in, is beyond me. And don’t get me started on some of the film’s botched scares, which come off as more humorous than horrifying at times. There are more than a couple of these littered throughout the movie.
Still, for all of my harping, The Last Exorcism Part II isn’t a complete failure. It’s a mostly well-made flick that features a great lead performance and some genuine intensity throughout. While the film falters more and more as it nears the finish line, we are left with an intriguing setup for yet another sequel. And, while I’ll have a few misgivings about doing so, I’ll more than likely be there to witness yet another “last” exorcism.
So! If you’re a fan of the previous film, or if you’re looking for a spooky flick to pass the time this weekend and you’ve already exhausted all other possibilities at your local multiplex, you could do far worse than give this sequel a shot. For those not even remotely enamored with the original entry or movies of its ilk, you’d do well to stay far away.
2 1/2 out of 5