(by Dustin Putman
"The Last Exorcism Part II" goes the less-traveled "Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2" route, foregoing its predecessor's documentary POV style in exchange for a more straightforward supernatural horror telling. It's a gamble to switch up what seemingly worked the first time around, but director Ed Gass-Donnelly does what he can, using every trick conceivably known to man—barking dogs, ringing telephones, radios and TVs popping loudly to life, people jumping into frame at inopportune times—to set his audience on edge. Even when the scare tactics are cheap, the sound effects are very, very effective. Regrettably, the film isn't much more than a series of moments such as these, eventually becoming tedious before the 88-minute running time is up. It all feels very much tacked-on. Article continues below
When last seen, the demonically possessed Nell Sweetzer (Ashley Bell) was giving birth in the woods as part of some sort of sacrificial ritual, the priest and his film crew who had initially come to help her falling victim to a Satanic cult. When Nell is found, she has few memories of what happened and is told that the rest of her family was believed to have perished in a fire. Sent to live in a transitional home for teenage girls, the formerly deeply religious Nell is exposed for the first time to rock music, store-bought clothes, friends, boys, and the limitless possibilities of the outside world. She wants nothing more than to put her old life behind her, but the entity that once lived inside her, named Abalam, isn't about to let her go.
"The Last Exorcism Part II" is an anomalous title for a sequel that goes through some pretty typical motions. The material is slim, padded out to its current length of less than an hour and a half, but, particularly in the first half, it is not without a few honestly creepy scenes. Drenched in purveying doom, Nell's "normal" existence never stays so for long. Shot on location in New Orleans, the picture takes ominous advantage of locales as varied as a cemetery of above-ground tombs to the city's revelatory downtown streets during Mardi Gras. It is during this latter celebration that Nell approaches a silver-painted human statue of a soldier—one that seems to know her well and doesn't take long to suddenly come to animate life. It's immensely unsettling, as are a number of malevolent messages that start lurking in the electronic devices around her. Less fortunate: a poorly-timed scene where a flock of birds fly suddenly into a building—an idea put to far better use in the recent "Dark Skies."
Returning from 2010's "The Last Exorcism," Ashley Bell is so spectacularly good as Nell Sweetzer, so disarmingly sweet and vulnerable and innocent, that she deserves a better movie than "The Last Exorcism Part II." Playing the part with the same level of commitment and nuance that she would a prestigious, Oscar-caliber drama, Bell sees Nell's story as that of a grand tragedy, of a young woman who wants to adapt to the world and live her life like anyone else, but never will get to. Every time she sees a chance at happiness, it is dashed by a dark cloud settling in permanently overhead. Before long, she won't even be herself anymore—and when that occurs, what happens to her soul? As is, the screenplay by Ed Gass-Donnelly and Damien Chazelle—and, by extension, the film—does not take Nell's fate nearly as seriously as the actress playing her does. Setting up a string of funhouse-style frights and jumps is the name of the game, and any further depth that slips through is due to the main cast and their transcendence of stock roles. This includes not only Bell, but also Spencer Treat Clark (2009's "The Last House on the Left") as Chris, Nell's sweet-natured co-worker and love interest, and Muse Watson (1998's "I Still Know What You Did Last Summer") as Frank Merle, the concerned owner of the home Nell goes to stay at.
It wouldn't be truth in advertising if there wasn't at some point an exorcism on display (then again, its name is "The Last Exorcism Part II"), and one is shoehorned in soon after voodoo priestess Miss Cecile (Tarra Riggs) shows up right on time and unannounced, knowing all about Nell's plight and generously wanting to help free of charge. Running out of places to take the film, director Ed Gass-Donnelly wraps things up shortly after, sending grim hope for the future of the world while using Nell less as a person to care about and more as a means to an end. This, then, is the movie's biggest failing. Nell is so well-drawn and brought to life by Ashley Bell that she deserves more consideration than that of an afterthought.