An uneven, but not completely uninteresting sequel that expands the mythology and suggests better things in the future.
Director: Ed Gass-Donnelly
Cast: Ashly Bell, Julia Garner, Spencer Treat Clark
When THE LAST EXORCISM was announced and it’s marketing campaign started, the internet film community issued a collective sigh. Found footage films were cropping up constantly, and there wasn’t much faith that anything new, interesting or scary could be wrung out of the exorcism/possession genres. Initial screening reviews started being released and positive word of mouth started to build some anticipation. That anticipation grew, giving the film a strong opening weekend, but the positive reaction from the audience gave it some legs, and where so many films sell fewer tickets as the weeks pass, THE LAST EXORCISM started selling more and it turned into a surprise hit. The critical reaction was more positive than negative, but the audiences embraced it fully. It was one of the biggest surprises of 2010 and helped solidify Eli Roth’s reputation as more than just a young director attempting to paint himself as a brash upstart. It proved he could be as successful as a producer as he’d already become as a director.
That film had taken the found footage, first person perspective and mixed it with a dash of mockumentary, creating an interesting way to tell it’s story. It also took the audience expectations of character archetypes and social stereotypes and played with them in a way that produced an exceedingly fun, scary, interesting horror film. Possibly the biggest reasons for its success were Ashley Bell and Patrick Fabian. Ashley Bell was so endearing and terrifying as Nell Sweetzer that audience members would had to have been made of stone not to react to her. Patrick Fabian gave the kind of charismatic performance that made his role as a preacher/exorcist seem completely real, but also made his character intensely likable. Those two performances, and the fact that their characters were written with genuine emotional centers and were given memorable moments, were really what made the film different than so many of the other films dealing with the same subject matter.
Now, three years later we’re being treated to the sequel, THE LAST EXORCISM PART II. Where the first film had the opportunity to surprise us, this film has the unenviable task of continuing a story that seemed to come to a satisfying and certain conclusion. It succeeds in some interesting ways, but it does fall short in some ways as well. The result will likely divide the horror community and suffer a beating from the mainstream critical community. Chances are good that it’s going to divide fans of the first film too. Some of them are going to find more of what they loved in the original, and others are going to find that there isn’t nearly enough of what they loved about the first film.
Above all else, it has to be made clear the Ashley Bell is an incredible young actor. The power of her performance in the first film was no fluke. She is the real deal and is able to use the sweetness and naivete that made her so lovable in the original and build on it to show in a convincing way that she is the same character, but with all of the emotional and psychological baggage that would be unavoidable after the events of the first film. It will be a shame if Bell isn’t given a few more well written roles to continue to prove how talented she is. If nothing else, other directors who are casting for horror films should give her strong consideration. She brings an authenticity to Nell Sweetzer that is undeniable and can be genuinely heart breaking.
THE LAST EXORCIST PART II is a very different film from the first one though. The biggest departure from the original is that it does away with the found footage, first person perspective in favor of a more straight forward, third person omnipresent perspective. It also relies much more on the supernatural and the mystery surrounding it, where the first film succeeded in building a terrifying reality. The first act of this film does well in building a creepy atmosphere with a sense of the unseen and unknown lingering at it’s corners. It also succeeds in moving Nell’s story forward in a way that’s convincing. Every scene in the first act of the film does well in suggesting there is something just outside the frame of each shot that is watching and waiting to come for Nell. There are a few extremely effective jump scares peppered through the first act that had audience members visibly jumping in their seats and gasping audibly. Nell’s continued torment is frightening in relation to what neither she nor the audience know about what’s happening to her and Ashley Bell portrays her with such conviction that she succeeds in making the audience want to at least see her torment end if they can’t actively help her.
The second act is where the film suffers most. Unfortunately, it relies too heavily on the kind of tropes and cliches that plague moat supernatural suspense films. If it were to use these ideas and storytelling tools in a way to subvert audience expectations, like the first film did, it would have been interesting and fun, but it doesn’t. Instead there’s a lot of unexplained events and scenes that are meant to heighten the tension, suspense and help to keep the creepy atmosphere going, that end up doing much the opposite. There are points where the middle of the film drags and a few of the scenes feel too much like filler. There are also elements introduced in this second act that never end up coming to any conclusion. A good film doesn’t have to wrap up every single loose end, sometimes a degree of uncertainty or ambiguity are good, but given the way this film ends, it’s pretty clear that’s not the intent. These other story elements are added in an attempt to carry the creepy vibe of the first act into the second, and it’s clear there is a hope that no one realizes these scenes are essentially filler. There are characters given significance in the second act that essentially disappear from the film when the third act begins. After how well the first act works, the second act just highlights how much these scenes either don’t belong in the story at all or are severely under explored.
Without getting into spoilers, the films third act produces mixed results. There is more of the usual that anyone whose seen their fair share of supernatural horror will recognize and much of it feels as thrown together as the second act. But, the third act does have a few really strong moments that further establish Nell’s character and give the the events that follow more weight. All of it brings Nell’s story to a crescendo that reveals the whole of her story as a classic tragedy. Even as the film as a whole isn’t completely satisfying, in the context of Nell’s entire story including the first film, it’s satisfying. The final scene is actually the strongest entire film. It’s the first time the film shows the audience anything that really feels new and unusual. It suggests a perspective on possession and supernatural stories that is unique and could be incredibly interesting. It’s the only time during the film that I was actually thinking, “Now this is something I really want to see more of.” If the second and third act of this film had followed the story that’s suggested in that last scene, this would have been a very different film and judging by what was on screen in those last few minutes, would have been an incredibly fun, interesting and innovative film. Overall, this is a darker film that the first. It lacks the humor of the original film and has a much heavier, dramatic tone. Given the nature of the story, and what Nell’s character arc is, it makes sense for the writer and the film makers to have gone in that direction, but above all else the lack of the same kind of fun feel that pervaded so much of the first film is what many fans are going to find disappointing. This film doesn’t necessarily suffer because of that lack of humor, but it does make it a very different film from the first, and anyone going into the theater expecting this sequel to follow the same formula so many others have by just giving the audience more of the same in bigger, louder, more shocking ways is going to come away feeling a bit sour about it.
Two other things about this film deserve mention as well. The cinematography and design are both very good, in a very subtle way. They don’t call attention to themselves through being flashy or by creating a look that is so beautiful that the audience can’t help but notice them. Instead, they work in tandem to create and environment and a look for that environment that feels organic, but is also visually interesting enough that it never feels bland. There’s a particular scene involving Nell moving through a crowd that does take some more risks in terms of cinematography, but they pay off by creating a scene that conveys everything it has to or wants to with nothing other than the image it’s presenting.
All in all, THE LAST EXORCISM PART II isn’t a great film or a terrible film. It doesn’t stand up as well on it’s own as it does in connection to the first film, but the way that it moves the story of Nell Sweetzer forward and furthers the arc of her character is interesting and in it’s way is something slightly different than what we’ve seen in the possession and exorcism genres before. It was probably a purposeful attempt to lay the foundation for another sequel, but the final sequence of the film definitely suggests that there could be a third film in this franchise and given what we’re shown, it could be the most interesting and unusual. Could is the operative word in that sentence though. That will all depend on how well THE LAST EXORCISM II does at the box office and then whether or not a good creative team can be pulled together for a third film. If it’s a question of making another film that is of the same quality as this second installment in the LAST EXORCISM franchise, I hope they just leave it be and decide two films is enough. But, if it seemed they took the ideas of that last scene and really ran with them, I’d actually be excited to see a third film and would be looking forward to see where the next chapter in Nell Sweetzer’s story goes.
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