When it was released three years ago, “The Last Exorcism” was a genuine surprise. What was advertised as a standard-issue found-footage horror movie for teens was actually a smart mockumentary about a variety of social issues, like blind adherence to organized religion and the camera’s ability to attract narcissists. As I wrote in my review, “The half-hour or so of [the film] that’s intended to be scary in the conventional sense is the side dish, not the main course.”
Unfortunately, general audiences who saw the film expecting a more traditional Friday night horror experience were sorely disappointed. Despite being one of the most original American films of the decade in its genre, “The Last Exorcism” received abysmal word-of-mouth. The CinemaScore, the average grade that moviegoers gave the film in exit-polls while leaving theater on opening night, was a rare “D.”
It would seem that “The Last Exorcism Part II” is the producers’ mea culpa to those unadventurous viewers who weren’t open to what the first film had to offer. Stripped of its predecessor’s inventiveness, this sequel feels more like the result of screenwriters Damien Chaze and Ed Gass-Donnelly (who also directs) inserting two of the original characters into a generic exorcism script initially intended for a straight-to-video project.
Having escaped the cult incident at the end of the first “Last Exorcism” and temporarily warded off the demon that possessed her, Nell Sweetzer (Ashley Bell) turns up in New Orleans, where she’s put in a psychiatric halfway house for young women (she’s still, well, scarred from the prior events). Her life begins to improve for a short period, but sooner than later, the demon, named Abalam, returns to haunt her some more. Thus begins an hour of conventional jump scares, plus assorted spooky moments of Abalam hijacking a radio, a telephone line, and the body of a Mardi Gras performer to make Nell aware that he’s coming for her.
Even though this stretch of “The Last Exorcism Part II” is decidedly lacking in originality, it’s not poorly executed. Brendan Steacy’s cinematography is especially effective, fusing classic horror compositions with the raw, immediate look allowed by the digital Arri Alexa. Ashley Bell’s performance is also a highlight; the actress portrays Nell’s emotions of inner-torture and trauma with nuance and humanity, as opposed to just playing a single note (looking frightened) like so many other horror heroines.
But these merits that keep “The Last Exorcism Part II” tolerable, in spite of its complete lack of ambition, are ultimately overwhelmed by the nonsense of the final act. From the point Nell is taken in by a team of demon fighters known as “The Righthand Path” onward, plot takes precedence over atmosphere and the film builds to a conventionally noisy climax. At this point, the filmmakers’ only concern is wrapping the story up as quickly and easily as possible. Again, it seems as though they took the simpleton criticisms of the first film to heart and sought to deliver the most ordinary horror product imaginable.
Many have joked about the inherent absurdity of the title “The Last Exorcism Part II.” I elected to avoid doing so, because after a strong first-last exorcism, I was honestly optimistic about the prospect of a second-last. Now, after experiencing what a last-last exorcism has to offer—nothing in common with its predecessor—I think I can speak for everyone when I say, I pray there’s never a last-last-last exorcism.