Studio: CBS Films
Director: Ed Gass-Donnelly
Writer: Damien Chazelle, Ed Gass-Donnelly
Producer: Eric Newman, Eli Roth, Marc Abraham, Thomas A. Bliss
Stars: Ashley Bell, Julia Garner, Spencer Treat Clark, David Jensen, Tarra Riggs, Louis Herthum, Muse Watson
Having survived her ordeal in the woods, Nell Sweetzer struggles for a return to normalcy while being haunted by the demon Abalam.
Realizing that only one exorcism can be the last, the sequel’s title sandwiches the word “Part” before its Roman numeral, technically making it an extension of “The Last Exorcism,” rather than a separate one altogether. Although “The Last Exorcism Part II” is very much a film of its own that shares a character set with its predecessor, and not much else.
“The Last Exorcism” (review here) had a number of things going for it that made it stand out in the “found footage” genre. Particularly memorable was an ambiguous ending that maddened some and delighted others. Following a failed exorcism from a charlatan preacher, naïve farm girl Nell Sweetzer was left possessed with a demon baby. The film climaxed with a cult ceremony that was intended either to purge the evil entity or to facilitate its entry into the world. Various characters switched allegiances, ran towards a raging bonfire, or turned tail towards the woods. When the credits rolled, there was more than one way to interpret the events that had just been witnessed.
Shedding the “found footage” format is no big deal. Giving a canonical explanation for the first film’s ending is a more questionable action, even though that explanation is almost as vague. “The Last Exorcism Part II” begins with the video camera on the forest floor. One thing left unexplained is exactly how Nell survived, but somehow she did, presumably with some demonic assistance. Nell is then placed in a halfway house for girls and tries to go about putting some semblance of normalcy back into her life. But the demon Abalam still has a very powerful connection to her.
Whether or not that summary in the previous paragraph constitutes a story, it is what passes for one in “The Last Exorcism Part II.” Nell is clearly the star of the sequel, but Reverend Cotton Marcus led the first film. (In fact, the original working title of “The Last Exorcism” was “Cotton.”) “The Last Exorcism” was less about twisting heads and more about Cotton’s arc through a look at his family life and his evolving faith as events unraveled. The character study was a welcome surprise for a “found footage” horror film. It was also an edge that the movie used well to sustain interest in an otherwise rote tale of demonic possession.
Removing the best character for the sequel to focus on the first film’s secondary star is not a sin, but “Part II” does not even qualify as an intimate look at Nell. Nell is pretty much the same person she was when audiences met her the first time. A sweet, innocent country kid with a kind heart and a proclivity for unwittingly harboring devils in her body. Surrounding her are even thinner characters. Only one of the girls staying with Nell in the halfway house is given a name. The rest are so nondescript that the movie does not even bother assigning anyone else an identity.
This is what makes “The Last Exorcism Part II” so hollow. The story, such as there is one, can only go one of two ways. Either Nell is going to be possessed again, or the demon will be defeated. There is nothing more to the plot than that and filling in the blanks with empty characters only emphasizes that fact. Many scenes are completely devoid of dialogue, as the central focus of the film is on creating mood above all else.
What the movie then becomes is a series of slowly timed vignettes that barely connect to one another. Dogs bark, pictures fall off walls, and loud thumps provide every chill there is by way of noisy jump scares. They are plentiful and they are occasionally effective too, but it is only an audio induced thrill. None of the movie’s actual meat offers a lasting impression. And the less said about the final scene, the better.
The script is a disappointment, but there is admittedly some limited appeal to the film overall. The cinematography makes for a crisp looking film. Even though the jump scares are empty, they can pull a rise out of even the sleepiest viewer. And for once, a horror film exorcism is not based on Roman Catholic mythology featuring Latin phrases and splashing holy water. Credit is due for creating an interesting scene involving salt circles, possessed chickens, and the word “Croatoa” written on Nell’s belly, even if that last one makes little sense.
“Found footage” is exchanged for a traditional narrative. Cotton passes the torch to Nell. Practical FX make way for the digital variety. In an effort to create its own identity, “The Last Exorcism Part II” shelves everything that made the original uniquely entertaining and ends up being a movie that falls short of the first film’s bar. Although if undoing the ending of its predecessor becomes a tradition for this franchise, then that leaves at least one good reason to look forward to a Part III.
Review Score: 55