The Last Exorcism Part II begins by questioning the nature of identity and how it relates to our past. Are we defined by the events that have scarred us? How much power do we have in changing our natures and, in turn, our fate? These are the questions that our incredibly bendy friend Nell Sweetzer (Ashley Bell) is facing after she escapes from the events of the first film.
The Last Exorcism Part II picks up where the first left off, with clips that quickly illustrate the events of The Last Exorcism for those who are just tuning in. That first film was a documentary-style flick about a preacher named (Cotton Marcus) Patrick Fabian who brings along a camera crew to film his last ever exorcism, a ritual that the preacher no longer believes in until he meets Nell, her father Louis (Louis Herthum) and her brother Caleb (Caleb Landry Jones, once again playing the creepy ginger card). It's not clear whether Nell is exhibiting symptoms of a mental breakdown, perhaps the result of sexual trauma, or if she's actually possessed.
What was successful about the first, an interesting take on the tired exorcism trope, was that it was really an examination of faith. It wasn't particularly important whether or not Nell Sweetzer (Ashley Bell) was actuallypossessed, just that it caused Cotton to rethink his faith. A similar ambiguity, this time about identity and self-actualization and even sexuality, is played with in the sequel until about two-thirds of the way through, when screenwriters Damien Chazelle and Ed Gass-Donnelly throw any sort of mystery out the window and turn it into some freaky fake voodoo will-to-power nonsense.
After a brief stint at a New Orleans institution, where a nurse secretly snipped a chunk of Nell's hair for her gris-gris bag, Nell is hustled off to a halfway house for girls even though her grasp on reality is still a bit shaky. This house looks more like a really nice old house turned into a dorm, and the supposedly streetwise young girls are just PG-13 racy. With help from the guy who runs the halfway house — is he a therapist? A social worker? — Nell decides she's more than her past, more than a damaged girl who is controlled by the small-minded fears instilled in her by her father. She stops wearing her cross and starts hanging out with the other girls in the house; she even gets a job as a housekeeper at a hotel and begins an awkward romance. The demon inside her — call it Abalam or PTSD or a psychosexual freakout — begins to play tricks on her again. Is she crazy? Is there a cult after her? Is Abalam on the loose? What is the devil inside her? Although it lingers a little too long on the build-up, this is the most enjoyable part of the movie. Bell is interesting to watch, beyond her ability to contort her body, and it's sweet to see Nell bloom. She's equally talented at portraying someone who's losing her grip.
Chazelle and Gass-Donnelly, who also directed, try a mishmash of answers that take us through a meeting with the aforementioned nurse, Cecile (Tarra Riggs), and other followers of what Cecile calls "The Right Hand Path." What happens is a sort of grab bag of religious and occult symbols, from voodoo veves and other magical symbols that are painted on walls (and catch fire!) to mysterious talk of some sort of end-of-days stuff. They even name-check Baron Samedi. That's cool and all, but it doesn't make a lot of sense in context except as a parallel to the Christian rituals in the first film. It looks like the screenwriters did some research, but the bulk of it seems to have come from movies like The Believers and the New Age section of their local bookstore, and it only serves to exoticize these belief systems. That's a nitpicky detail compared to the bigger issue, which is that the audience is bludgeoned with daft answers to Nell's problem. They do raise some interesting questions about identity, destiny and perhaps religion itself that are impossible to discuss without giving away the ending. Still, it's unwieldy at best.
One small bone we're thrown is that Gass-Donnelly doesn't use the same shaky-cam technique that Daniel Stamm favored in the first film. Although it worked to the movie's favor, it can be rough for those prone to motion sickness. It should also be noted that Chazelle and Ed Gass-Donnelly weren't involved in the first movie; screenwriters Huck Botko and Andrew Gurland didn't return for sequel duty. It will be interesting to see who turns up for the third Last Exorcism. The third? Sure, it hasn't been announced yet, but it would take an act of God (or perhaps Abalam) to put an end to this story.
[Photo Credit: CBS Films]