Sitting down to write a review of THE LAST EXORCISM PART II, I find myself somewhat in the position of the modern satirist, who finds the real world has become so ridiculous that there is little room to push the envelope even further for comic effect, rendering the concept of satire almost redundant. In my case, reviewing THE LAST EXORCISM PART II is virtually redundant because you, dear reader, have already viewed it. Oh, you may not have paid for a ticket yet, but believe me, you have seen it all - in other, earlier (though not necessarily better) movies. But then, this is hardly surprising. After all, if the previous film offered the exorcism - the end of the line, done, finished, all over and used up - then we have only ourselves to blame for expecting anything new in THE LAST EXORCISM PART II.
What is mildly interesting is that what we have seen before is not necessarily from THE LAST EXORCISM. In fact, PART II makes a laudable attempt to distance itself from its predecessor, using those that film's plot only as a back story and abandoning the pseudo-documentary stylings in favor of a more conventional approach that focuses on the soul survivor of the confusing conflagration that consumed the characters at the conclusion of Part 1.
This time out, Nell (Ashley Bell) is the focus of our attention, as she tries to recover from her traumatic past while evading evil forces that may be pursuing her or may exist only in her mind. (One guess: which turns out to be correct?) Bell provides an award-worth performance as a lost and fragile soul, struggling to come to grips with unpleasant memories and to find a place for herself in a modern world that makes her feel like a stranger in a strange land (after years couped up in the creepy cabin of the first film).
The inevitable problem with this scenario is that generic demands trump satisfying drama. No matter how much the opening scenes engage our sympathy, it is all for naught - simply a set up for the sturm and drang to come, during which THE LAST EXORCISM PART II jettisons everything that worked in order to parade a few well-worn shocks across the screen like has-beens on a decrepit vaudeville stage, before proceeding to the sadly predictable finale.
I say "predictable," because (as I indicated above) you have seen it before, along with almost everything else in the film. Seriously, if you have watched more than a few horror movies this year, you have seen THE LAST EXORCISM PART II, almost from beginning to end. Don't believe me? Well, read on...
WARNING: Major spoilers abound.
- We start with a reasonably well-staged set-piece of a couple alarmed by an unexpected intrusion, which turns out to be a feral-looking child, hunched on all fours atop a shelf (MAMA).
- The child - well, young woman - turns out to be orphaned, or at least abandoned, with a supernatural force pursuing her and protecting her (also MAMA).
- There is a spooky cult, seen at the end of the previous film, that wants to drag her back into the fold (essentially PARANORMAL ACTIVITY 4 - which was last year, but still...).
- We know our girl is being targeted by evil forces because she levitates above her bed (also PARANORMAL ACTIVITY 4).
- Also, a flock of birds go kamikaze on the windows of a building she is in (apparently having flapped over from DARK SKIES).
- The dilemma, it turns out, is that the young woman must decide whether to renounce the darkness or join forces with it (BEAUTIFUL CREATURES).
- Helping her in this effort is a sympathetic black female supporting character, who can offer a little non-Christian spiritual support because this is the South, where they have all the voodoo stuff (also BEAUTIFUL CREATURES and come to think of it, kinda sort THE HAUNTING IN CONNECTICUT 2: GHOSTS OF GEORGIA).
- In the end, the exorcism proves ineffective (THE LAST EXORCISM), and the invading entity gains purchase within the body of an innocent victim (INSIDIOUS).
If you don't mind re-watching a virtual montage of other horror movies, THE LAST EXORCISM PART II is interesting for a while, although its slow build-up is more "slow" than "build-up." The spook scenes more or less sustain themselves in the first half, when the filmmakers keep to relatively believable phenomena that could be explained away as dreams, hallucinations, or coincidence. But the urge to supply a fright-filled finale pushes the film beyond its ability to sustain credibility (a roomful of levitating knifes seems lifted from an Italian EXORCIST rip-off, circa 1979.)
It is almost an article of faith among contemporary horror films that Evil is all powerful and unstoppable, so much so that resistance is futile; the characters might as well give up and resign themselves to their fate before the film even starts, saving us the trouble of wasting our time to see them reach their inevitable end. Back in the 1970s, this sort of cynicism made some kind of sense in the context of the disillusionment engendered by Watergate, the Vietnam War, and the threat of mutually assured nuclear annihilation; today, it merely seems arbitrary.
I suppose that, if one were in a sympathetic frame of mind, one could find an argument to justify THE LAST EXORCISM PART II's final turn of events, which offer just a hint of the rebellious joyful anarchy - bordering on self-righteous glee - that results from overthrowing one's oppressors. Somewhat miraculously, Ashley Bell engages our sympathy almost strongly enough to make us vicariously endorse this conclusion (somewhat in the manner that we root for Carrie White's prom-night revenge).
Unfortunately, the scenario is too contrived to support this reading credibly. Everyone is suspect - possibly part of the evil conspiracy, as evidenced by an unnerving trip to a church, where a chaplain offers not so soothing spiritual comfort in dialogue carefully calibrated to obscure whether he is talking about God or Abalam. Furthermore, the alleged representatives of the Power of Good (called the "right-hand path") are too closely akin to the incompetent Jedi from STAR WARS, EPISODE III: THE REVENGE OF THE SITH, who seem to almost deliberately drive Anakin to join the Dark Side of the Force. Poor double-crossed Nell - we are led to believe - has no choice but to accept the demonic Abalam, because everyone else is so afraid of what will happen if she accepts Abalam.
Except, you know, her sympathetic therapist. And her would-be boyfriend, whom Abalam forces to commit suicide (nice, effective way to earn your potential victim's sympathy and convince her to submit willingly!). There's also the nagging problem that Abalam, we are told, is weak without Nell as a vessel for his power - until the script needs him to be so powerful that he cannot be exorcised,* scaring the Right-Hand Path into attempting to kill Nell in order to prevent Abalam from entering her and fulfilling an apocalyptic prophecy.
Is it any wonder the poor girl goes a little bit off the rails at the end? I mean, who wouldn't - the script (if not the devil) made her do it. Too bad the switch from victim to victimizer feels like a half-hearted afterthought, targeting a handful of (mostly off-screen) victims. Instead of a cathartic explosion of apocalypstic proportions, we get a joy ride, a few computer-generated flames, and some rock-and-roll on the soundtrack.
This, it seems, is how the world ends - not with a bang but with a music video.
THE LAST EXORCISM PART II (March 1, 2013). CBS Films, 88 minutes, rated R. Written by Damien Chazell and Ed Gass-Donelley. Directed by Ed Gass-Donnelly. Cast: Ashley Bell, Julia Garner, Spencer Treat Clark, David Jensen, Tarra Riggs, Louis Herthum, Muse Watson, Erica Michelle, Sharice A. Williams, Boyana Balta, Joe Chrest.
- Yes, there is an exorcism in THE LAST EXORCISM PART II. Which means that THE LAST EXORCISM did not, in fact, feature the "last exorcism."