When The Last Exorcism debuted in the fall of 2010, it’s safe to say that it was definitely cashing in on the found footage genre. It was at it’s peak, with Paranormal Activity just hitting the screen a year prior and lighting the horror scene ablaze. This isn’t to say it wasn’t a bad movie, by any means, in fact it was likely one of the best of the slew of found footage features. It didn’t hurt to have Eli Roth as an executive producer. While we lost Daniel Stamm, the director of its predecessor, but Eli Roth and star Ashley Bell return for The Last Exorcism: Part II which ditches the handicam look and goes for a more traditional cinematic look.
This is the continued story of Nell Sweetzer, who has been found in New Orleans and is put into a home for troubled teen girls. Frank, the owner of the home, is convinced that the demon Abalam does not exist and that Nell has created that story as a way to deal with her prior trauma in Ivanwood. For a while, Nell does well at adjusting to her new life. She finds a job, meets a boy, and even makes friends with the girls in the house. But it isn’t long before Abalam makes his presence known and starts again on his quest for Nell. It’s up to herself and The Order of the Right Hand to stop Abalam from possessing Nell and fulfilling an ancient evil prophecy.
The change from a found footage to a traditionally shot film was a solid move. Not only is the trend dying down but it made the story much easier to tell and allowed for more plots and motives to be explained and shown. It also created the opportunity for many of the tense moments to arise, such as growing shadows and demonic voices, all things that would have been difficult to portray from the view of a video camera without washing away the sense of dread. Ed Gass-Donnelly (Small Town Murder Songs) picks up the directing duties this go round as well as getting credited with co-writing the film. He does a great job at building tension, creating numerous armrest gripping moments, but unfortunately most of these scenes have no climax. You can sense the scare coming but end up mildly confused and let down when instead of peaking, it’s plateaus and you find yourself breathing normally again without ever having to experience any fright. Where he shines are his stabs at minimalist horror: a living statue that offers an “I miss you,” a telephone call with demonic origins, and disturbing eavesdropping that depicts sin and lust.
The cast is outstanding. Ashley Bell is truly a superb actress who was built for horror. The way she can switch between the humble scared Nell fighting Abalam to frightening sinister Nell in a second is a feat that is almost unparalleled by any other actor. You feel honestly empathetic towards her, you are sad when she’s sad and scared when she’s scared. She does a great job at translating emotion with her face and through the screen. The supporting cast is solid as well, with Julia Garner shining through as the malicious roommate and David Calder as the steadfast exorcist.
Despite these fantastic performances and the steady direction of the film, I still walked away dissatisfied. After a day of letting it marinate, I know why. The entire movie, much like many of the scare scenes, felt like a build up with no climax. We get a lot more information on the cult and the demon, find out more about Nell and her connection to Abalam, but before any concrete lines can be drawn, the movie ends. We find out about The Order of the Right Hand but we never learn what their goal is or what it is, exactly, that they do. We’re told of an evil ancient but never find out what it was or what will happen if it occurs. It’s hinted that Nell and Abalam go much further back than what happened in the previous movie, but it’s never divulged upon. It’s a lot of story telling with very little resolution.
The movie is by no means bad. The acting from Ashley Bell alone is almost enough to merit the ticket price. While Gass-Donnelly shows he knows how to direct a film, it seems his screenwriting skills could use some work. Because of a number of open ended plot threads and non-climatic scares, The Last Exorcism: Part II falls just short of being a great horror flick.