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3/01/2013

Review: 'The Last Exorcism Part II' starring Ashley Bell



It's become old hat to knock exorcism films for not being especially rich in creativity, so it was something of note when 2010's The Last Exorcism proved to be the rare exception. Produced by Eli Roth, the film smartly played with our perceptions of the genre and demonic possession, following a faithless Reverend who took to cashing in on fake exorcisms, before ultimately running into the real thing. It asked some serious questions about faith, explored religion's stranglehold on rural America, and even touched in small ways on domestic abuse. The film brought the familiar genre into the modern age of YouTube videos and TV exposés, while also creating a great tragic figure in the sweetly innocent backwater naïf, Nell Sweetzer.

As refreshing as that film was, that's how perfunctory The Last Exorcism Part II turns out to be. Ditching the found footage, mockumentary approach that worked so well before, the sequel takes a more traditional route in every way. Gone is any hint of intelligence or ingenuity in favor of ineffective horror tropes.

Fortunately, Ashley Bell returns as Nell, her subtle and heartbreaking performance from the first film a true highlight. She's no less remarkable here, her performance far too good for a story that lets her down at every turn. When last we left Nell, she had just given birth to the demon Abalam's spawn, and some fanatical cult had claimed it and roasted it the during the fiery finale. The story starts off with a random, inexplicable scene with a possessed Nell stalking around peoples' kitchens. When we catch up with her next, she's now seemingly demon-free, relocated into a New Orleans halfway house for damaged young women.

From there we see just how truly sheltered Nell has been all along. Totally unfamiliar with the world at large, she's fascinated by things the other girls take for granted. Her benevolent caretaker repeatedly hammers home the idea that everything she went through previously was just a figment of her imagination. The film begins to take shape in a promising way as director and co-writer Ed Gass-Donnelly begins to explore Nell's awakening to a life she never knew existed. She begins working as a hotel maid, where she starts to feel the first sexual stirrings for a boy she works with. In one amazing and very telling scene, Nell listens intently as a couple in a nearby room has sex, the look of her face a mixture of awe and new-found arousal.

It isn't long before Nell begins having terrible nightmares and searing visions of terrible evil, but often it's hard to figure whether her moans are from horror or pleasure. She begins seeing her dead father, warning her of the terrible fate to come. A priest invites her to give in to Abalam's desires, while a guy dressed up as living statue tells her how much she's been missed. Absence apparently makes the heart grow fonder, even for demons. New Orleans, with its open acceptance and celebration of religion's dark side, proves to be the worst place for Nell to be. It only gets worse when her roommates, urged on by the devious Gwen (Julia Garner), discover a YouTube video of Nell's earlier possession.

Nell's inability to properly acclimate to society provides more dread and genuine fright than any of the lame jump scares Gass-Donnelly employs later on. She's such a sweet-faced girl who clearly doesn't understand what's happening to her, so we can't help but fear the impact of another possession. To defeat the demon, Nell turns to a handful of unfamiliar characters we have no investment in to perform the same old exorcism we've seen a thousand times before.  No cliché goes unused, there's even a chicken sacrifice, and it's far more silly than scary.

The Last Exorcism was a smart film that used the horror genre to explore current social issues, and in that way proved to be a superior piece of work. The sequel tricks us into believing the aims are similar, but soon devolves into just another cheap knock-off of The Exorcist.

Trav's Tip: Tune in to my interview with Ashley Bell where she discusses working with Eli Roth on the film; how she physically prepares for the role; and her favorite horror movies.