When we inevitably put together our list of the Top Ten Found Footage Horror Movies (have we finally hit ten yet?), The Last Exorcism is bound to end up near the top of it. Daniel Stamm’s thriller about a faith healer who tries to expose the falsehood of his profession, only to discover too late that there was something to it all along, had rich characters, thick atmosphere and a twist ending that didn’t just change the plot, it changed the whole genre. The sequel was probably bound to pale in comparison, but then again, The Last Exorcism Part II is all about putting on a layer of rouge.
Nell Sweetzer, again played by human bendy straw Ashley Bell, awakens after the events of The Last Exorcism with no memory of the film’s traumatic events, aside from her vague awareness of a spectral boogeyman called “Abalam.” A ding-dong later, she’s in a halfway house for other troubled young girls, and trying to get her life together after near two decades of oppressive, cultlike religious conservatism. Nell takes to secular living very well, but her impending sexual awakening is accompanied by eerie visions and limbs that come alive at night and make her feel like a natural woman. A part of Abalam still seems to reside within her, but will her salvation come from self-discovery, a return to God’s flock… or something altogether less settling?
Lots of films play off the dogmatic notions of “good” and “evil,” either demonizing religion itself for trying to rewire our primal urges, or demonizing actual demons who take hold of us when we get down and do the nasty. Where The Last Exorcism Part II works best, aside from an appealingly ballsy ending, is in its efforts to mix the two. If Satan, Abalam, Pazuzu and/or Robot Devil are inextricably linked to God, even as a polar opposite, does it not stand that, on some level, they are also one and the same?
Nell’s corruption into a vessel for Abalam is awakened when she turns her back on her religious upbringing, which is then met with symbolic projections of evil when she finally tarts up a bit and dares to pursue a romantic, possibly even (eventually) sexual relationship. The internal struggle with her fundamentalist upbringing, now ignited, becomes an external drama of demonic possession, with Abalam simultaneously standing in for base human desires and an institutionalized system of imposing judgment upon them. Thus giving The Last Exorcism Part II something philosophical to fiddle with during the many stretches when it’s actually kind of dull.
Incoming director Ed Gass-Donnelly allows much of The Last Exorcism Part II to play out as a straightforward drama, just not a terribly involving one. Nell is once again played with natural interest by Ashley Bell, but her life isn’t terribly interesting until the supernatural comes back into it… which takes a while. It makes sense, mind you: she’s dealing with considerable trauma and coping as well as can be expected, but in fact she’s coping so well that it’s hard to stay involved in her story. By the time Abalam finally makes his/her/its move, the plot point rings slightly false. Nell has achieved so much inner peace that her sudden, plummeting, backward slide into torment plays less like a tragic betrayal of daily comfort and more like the movie finally got bored of not making with the horror already.
But it works, mostly (and quite a bit less than the original), because The Last Exorcism Part II – a film whose title makes about as much sense as Rambo: First Blood Part II and The Haunting in Connecticut: Ghosts of Georgia – has something on its mind and the testicular and/or ovarian fortitude necessary to go out with an unexpected, cathartic bang. It never feels entirely necessary, this follow-up to a self-contained, albeit open-ended first film, but it’s a natural extension of the story and a halfway decent descent into the tortured mind of a young woman choosing between the cozy safety net of religion and the dichotomous, unreliable promises of independence. And – get this – I actually want to see the sequel to this one. Provided, of course, that it’s called The Last Exorcism: No Seriously, We Swear This Time.
William Bibbiani is the editor of CraveOnline's Film Channel, co-host of The B-Movies Podcast, co-star of The Trailer Hitch, and the writer of The Test of Time. Follow him on Twitter at @WilliamBibbiani.