”Sequel” is no longer the dirty word.
There are still those who harbor immediate connotations of inferior cash-grabs, but the franchising of filmic properties has become so standardized, and in many instances monumentally improved, that sequels are now more akin to opportunities than they are inherent bad ideas. So why is it we are still given pause at the notion of The Last Exorcism Part II?
It may have to do with the fundamentally paradoxical nature of its title; if the first film represented the execution of the last exorcism, how can there be another? More likely however is the fact that horror movies in particular do not have the best track record when it comes to sequels. Most of the iconic boogeymen of the genre were granted the spacious accommodations of a franchise after their initial outing proved financially viable, and those franchises are indeed fraught with misguided and sensationally subpar entries. More often than not, the issue that continually arose was that we were seeing the same setups and near identical executions, literally in some cases, time and time again.
In terms of content, it remains to be seen to what degree The Last Exorcism Part II will be beholden to its predecessor. However, in terms of visual framework, the sequel makes a stark break from, shall we call it, The Penultimate Exorcism. Whereas the progenitor was a found footage film, the follow-up abandons the gimmick in favor of a more traditional third-person perspective. Given how lucrative found footage continues to be, this move is no small deviation. Now and again, one does come across horror sequels that break from the original in some drastic fashion or another, but does this tactic, whether it be labeled originality or novelty, in and of itself ensure success?
Let’s examine a few examples of divergent sequels. There are those that benefited from establishing a voice all their own. Tobe Hooper’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 took the gritty, sweltering realism of the watershed original and injected an ample dose of humor that, while a far cry from what audiences were expecting, birthed a cult fandom all its own. The same can be said for Halloween III: Season of the Witch. Babysitter-butchering Michael Myers vanishes from the equation and is replaced with a supernatural cautionary tale about commercialism and conformity. It too has its stable of loyal fans who appreciate the fresh approach.
The flipside unfortunately is that for every Halloween III, there is a Silent Night Deadly Night 4. This 1990 direct-to-video sequel abandons anything resembling a killer Santa Claus, the calling card of the previous films, and instead wedges a bizarre story of witchcraft and giant insects into a recognizable franchise. The most notorious of the in-name-only sequels is of course Troll 2, in which the word “troll” is mentioned as frequently as are the events of the first installment, which is to say not once. More relevant to Last Exorcism II, Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 and REC 3 are each sequels to found footage films that shed the visual stunt. Neither of them worked.
With that in mind, pondering all the instances of horror sequels striving to break new ground, it seemed pertinent to construct a helpful list of do’s and don’ts for The Last Exorcism Part II, to help it maximize its newfound potential and avoid falling into the traps that comes with this bold divorce from the mode it has established. Warning: The following section will contain spoilers for the original Last Exorcism.
Do Keep the Possessed Protagonist Sympathetic
There are two things that can happen with the conclusion of possession films. Either the innocent vessel of evil is freed and returns to their normal disposition or they end up so far gone that they become the villain. At the end of the first film, it was clear that while she was the cause of our documentary crew’s demise, it was the Satan-worshiping community and not Nell who was the antagonist. She too was a victim. From the trailers, it would appear a satanic cult is still pursuing Nell, but our sympathies must remain firmly with her in order for tension to be effective.
Don’t Rely on Jump Scares
Jump scares are present in all sorts of horror films, but they are bread and butter of found footage. This is probably due to the fact that the audience looking through the lens of our storyteller means they are just as unaware of what’s to come as he is; the lack of safety there echoed by the removal of the fourth wall. These can be used effectively, if also used sparingly, but suffice to say there was no shortage of jump scares in the first film. Now that the leap has been made to a more conventional narrative format, the emphasis needs to shift to static unsettling imagery. Steep the audience in the fright, force them to face it headlong and unflinchingly.
Do Flesh Out the Characters
What was so fascinating about The Last Exorcism was the Cotton Marcus character. Like many priests in possession films, Cotton faces a crisis of faith, but his actually takes place long after he’s abandoned it. The character was written with so many compelling layers as to allow for The Last Exorcism to create a thematic signature all its own. Unfortunately, we have to assume that Cotton is dead. Therefore, the next character introduced to help rid Nell of her curse must be similarly layered. The sequel can ill-afford to trot out a cliché exorcist caricature. For that matter, as Nell seems to have a more focal part in the sequel, she too needs to be fleshed out and given more than just the scared girl role.
Don’t Falter in the Titular Exorcism
Truth be told, there were a few exorcism scenes in the first film, but the title referred to the moment of truth during the hell-broken-loose ending. The pivotal scene in the sequel, one that has been teased by the trailers, is going to be far more important this time around. The Cotton character existed to sew doubt in the minds of the audience that perhaps nothing supernatural was happening. Now that we’re going in knowing this is a world in which possession is real, the stakes of that scene are even more heightened. And, again, since we will be seeing it in a wider scope, the sequel needs to deliver a terrifying spectacle that both sets Last Exorcism Part II apart from its predecessor, but from other exorcism films.
Do Explore the Space
The film’s audience is no longer confined to the perspective of a camera operator within the story. It is dire that Last Exorcism IIemploy adept cinematography and expansive shot composition. This will not only give the audience more to absorb, but justify the changeover in a way that leaves no one pining for the gimmick. Furthermore, the sequel needs to recognize that it is free of the logical fallacies presented by found footage. Creating the rationalization as to why the cameraman does not abdicate his documenting duties is no longer necessary; it should explore the space that provides to intensify the horrific situations.
Don’t Live and Die by the Twist
Admittedly, The Last Exorcism built to a twist ending, but the clues for its arrival were present throughout the movie. Audiences are probably therefore expecting the sequel to follow suit. There’s nothing that says Last Exorcism Part II can’t offer surprises of its own before the credits roll, but it cannot exist solely to serve the twist. If we’ve learned anything from Blair Witch 2, it’s that without a decent script, abandoning a gimmick can be the new gimmick. If the only concern is getting to the big reveal, the road leading there will seem meaningless.
[Photo Credit: CBS Films (2)]