Written by: Damien Chazelle & Ed Gass-Donnelly (screenplay), Huck Botko &
Andrew Gurland (characters)
Directed by: Ed Gass Donnelly
Starring: Ashley Bell, Julia Garner, Spencer Treat Clark
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
The second coming.
When it debuted back in 2010, The Last Exorcism cobbled together a lot of familiar elements but still managed to feel pretty fresh; certainly, weíd had our fill of found footage and exorcisms even back then, but the inspired mash-up resulted in one of the more gripping and memorable horror offerings from the past decade. Once the film caught on, and genre fan worth their salt knew that a sequel would obviously follow and lend itself to a title fit to be mocked*, so hereís The Last Exorcism II, a film that feels as rote and mechanical as its inevitability suggests. Unlike its predecessor, it canít escape its thudding sense of familiarity, even as it flirts around the edges of being a much more interesting movie than it actually is.
You can feel that in its approach, as it actually drops the found footage gimmick that defined the first film, which is a sort of daring move considering how often sequels are content to completely retread an original formula. Instead, this one adopts a more traditionally cinematic approach and picks up just minutes after the first filmís frenzied, mysterious climax. Rather than shed light on that head-scratcher of an ending, it quickly ships Nell (Ashley Bell) off to a halfway house for girls, where she convinces herself that her ordeal was nothing but a figment of her imagination. Before long, sheís well-adjusted and even holding down a job; however, it isnít long until the demonic Abalam comes calling like an abusive, possessive ex-lover.
Unfortunately, this follow-up is every bit as obvious and auto-piloted as one might expect an obligatory sequel to be, which is to say itís not an egregious slight to the original. Instead, itís just simply slight, a thoroughly vanilla offering that relies less on atmosphere and compelling leads and more on cheap jump scares and an ambivalent aesthetic that amounts to a white noise of stings, jolts, and vaguely creepy imagery. The more traditional approach opens up the filmís visual palette, and there are some nice set-ups; ironically enough, a few scenes are framed with the type of dread precision thatís often found in Paranormal Activity, as director Ed Glass-Donnelly introduces some subtle scares (such as a radio mysteriously coming on in Nellís presence). You could do worse than to ape that style, but most of the jumps and scares are telegraphed before you ever make it in from the lobbyóof course Nell sees visions of her dead father, of course there are body contortions, and of course the film assaults you with loud, random jolts.
Even worse, all this comes at the service of a muddled, threadbare story thatís either unwilling or simply unable to explore its intriguing subtexts thanks to its PG-13 rating. This film presents Nell in an expectedly frazzled light thanks to her religious upbringing and the fact that she may or may not have been knocked up with a demonic seed (anyone expecting some sort of explanation about the originalís climax is going to be disappointed), and the big hang-up here is sexuality. She meets a boy (Spencer Treat-Clark), which awakens all sorts of sensations and desires that were previously forbidden to heróand, all the while, Abalam is still vying for control of her body. Thereís an interesting, nutty movie in there somewhere, but The Last Exorcism II isnít it, as it continually shies away from its more fascinating bits in an attempt to shuffle the audience to overly familiar beats. For example, one wrinkle actually involves Nellís friends finding the footage from the original film on the internet, which turns her into a semi-celebrity (which, in turn, plays off of the first filmís conceit that Cotton Marcus had become famous for fake exorcisms). Nothing comes of this though, save for a perfunctory scene that actually just repeats a bit found earlier in the movie.
It strikes me that The Last Exorcism II repeats the mistakes of The Exorcist II by assuming that its predecessor worked solely due to the schlock and the demonic mythology driving its story. Of course, it was never just that stuff that made either fascinating; instead, it was the full, compelling tableau of human drama presented by both films that landed blows (though The Exorcist admittedly cut much deeper in this regard). The mere presence of evil and its inexplicable intrusion in both is a terrifying, bone-chilling concept that becomes diluted by the sequelsí delving further into the mythology, and The Last Exorcism II especially gets caught up in the wash here. By attempting to respect the originalís ambiguity and give in to the temptation to explore and craft some kind of mythology, it doesnít do much of either. It stops well short of the feverish, bizarre backstory provided by The Exorcist II (though it, too, is oddly hung up on the presence of insectsóflies, in this case) and opts for some half-assed, conspiratorial stuff involving the end-times, a concept thatís introduced just as the final act kicks in and shuffles us to the obvious, exorcism-filled climax (which introduces yet another intriguing concept that gets discarded in favor of a standard issue finale).
This leaves Ashley Bell to carry the load a bit more than she did in the original, where the main character was actually Cotton (who is all but forgotten in this movie); sheís fine as the maladjusted, awkward Nell, but the brief glimpse of the footage from the original highlights just how lived-in that performance was. In comparison, she seems a bit more stiff and uncomfortable this time, and the script only affords her a handful of chances to show off her range. Bell acquits herself well enough, but sheís essentially reduced to playing a cipher for various spooky events this time around, whereas the original allowed her to round out the ensemble in a slightly more complex story. Even though itís shorn of its found footage angle, it almost feels even more like a Paranormal Activity riff this time around since itís such a basic, straightforward array of scares centered on its protagonist. Itís just too bad so few of those scares are as inspired as the ones found in those films.
The Last Exorcism II also canít sustain any serious tension or dread; indeed, it meanders and lapses into a silly, unintentionally raucous climax thatís far removed from the creepy intimacy youíd expect from this series. It expectedly leaves the door open for another sequel, and, if the last few minutes of this one are any indication, a third film could be a loony affair. Part II feels like it could have been that way once upon a time since it sometimes feels quite ballsy. However, it finds itself castrated at every turn and relents to the expected tropes of its mutt-like complexionóit has the jolts of a haunted house movie, the violence of a slasher, and the twisted soul of a possession flick. While itís disingenuous to assume that the film set out to be so, itís an unwitting poster child for films that get produced simply because they can be. Cash-ins arenít inherently soulless, insipid endeavors, but The Last Exorcism II is. As such, itís the sort of film that should be seen for the same reason it was made: out of some sense of obligationóyou saw the first one, so why not this one, right? Itís the pitch thatís launched a thousand horror movies. Rent it!
*Itíd be easy to assume that the originalís title is now laughably moot, but it was in fact the final exorcism for Cotton Marcus.
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