Director – Ed Gass-Donnelley, Screenplay – Damien Chazelle & Ed Gass-Donnelly, Story – Damien Chazelle, Producers – Marc Abraham, Thomas Bliss, Eric Newman & Eli Roth, Photography – Brendan Steacy, Music – Michael Wandmacher, Digital Visual Effects – Mrs X. Inc (Supervisor – Aaron Weintraub), Additional Visual Effects – Buddha Jones Graphic Design (Supervisor – Brad Berling) & E3 Media (Supervisor – Jim Ryan), Special Effects Supervisor – David K. Nami. Production Company – Arcade Pictures.
Ashley Bell (Nell Sweetzer), Julia Garner (Gwen), Spencer Treat Clark (Chris), Muse Watson (Frank Merle), Tarra Riggs (Cecile), David Jensen (Jack Calder), Louis Herthum (Louis Sweetzer), Diva Tyler (Bev), Erica Michelle (Daphne), Sharice Angelle Williams (Mo), Joe Chrest (Pastor), Rayden Greer (Steph), Judd Lormand (Jared), Dane Rhodes (Drunken Tourist)
Nell Sweetzer is found traumatised, the only survivor of a fire that claimed the rest of her family. She is placed in a halfway house in New Orleans. There she makes a slow recovery, abandoning the idea of having been possessed by a demon. She obtains a job as a maid at a motel and starts to go out with a co-worker Chris, discovering many normal things for the first time. However, she also becomes aware that the demonic forces are creating a series of increasingly more sinister hallucinations and taunts to bring her back to them.
The Last Exorcism (2010) was a considerable sleeper find when it came out. It did a number of things that turned the possession and exorcism genre on its head. It was the first to conduct a possession and exorcism film as a Found footage film – an approach that has been taken by a number of other works since. It also went one beyond The Exorcist (1973) with its priest struggling to regain his faith and featured the central figure of a pastor who openly admitted that what he was doing was a sham. The film’s swinging between fakery and real with the character arc of the pastor suddenly forced to confront the actuality of something he does not believe in was very cleverly done.
The Last Exorcism Part II is a sequel. (It is one that by its very existence seems to render the original’s title redundant. Does it not mean that the first film should in retrospect now be retitled The Penultimate Exorcism?) It comes from the same quartet of producers, including Eli Roth. The exorcist played by Patrick Fabian is absent and the central character now becomes Ashley Bell who played the possessed girl in the original, while there are also some return appearances from Louis Herthum as her father. Original director Daniel Stamm has departed and that role is now taken up by Ed Gass-Donnelly, a Canadian director who gained some acclaim with the arthouse releases of This Beautiful City (2007) and in particular Small Town Murder Songs (2010). The interesting name on the script is that of Damien Chazelle, director of the acclaimed likes of Whiplash (2014), La La Land (2016) and First Man (2018).
Despite its run of negative reviews, I was prepared to give The Last Exorcism Part II some rope as it opened on the basis of its predecessor. The film seemed to be placing its focus on Ashley Bell who is starting to emerge as an increasingly worthwhile actress. Bell inhabits the part with a frail nervousness. During the early scenes as she comes to discover the outside world, every smile comes with a warmth that feels sincerely won. To the film’s great loss, this character focuses drops off after about the first half-hour and she is placed through a series of utterly routine set-pieces. Nevertheless, the climactic exorcism scenes and their contrast between the innocent her and the darkly seductive shadow self show just what an acting range that Bell is conducting.
Alas, The Last Exorcism Part II quickly slips into the utterly routine. The plot does nothing except serve up the cliches of the genre – the all-pervasive satanic cult who keep popping up to offer sinister warnings to the individual they want back; the supernatural threat playing games making the heroine doubt her sanity and think she is seeing things. None of these – Satanic phonecalls, mystery street performers turning to say things, Ashley Bell being levitated in her sleep, a man who wants to take her photo suddenly being killed in the street, bird attacks on a church (the second in a genre film in less than a month, coming after the near-identical scenes in Dark Skies (2013) one week earlier) – make much sense and seem to exist solely to keep jolting the audience every few minutes. Not to mention, how every single one feels raided from the book of supernatural horror cliches and fail to generate a single frisson that raises the pulse in any way.
The thing you immediately notice as The Last Exorcism Part II starts is that it has abandoned the Found Footage look of the original. There is an undeniable laziness to it – after all, the Paranormal Activity series has been scrupulous about keeping the Found Footage look pure through all three sequels. What it does mean is that all we have now is a regular possession film no different to any other of several dozen low-budget efforts. Crucially, in playing everything as just another possession film, the sequel fails to understand almost anything that made the original work – the way the uniqueness of the Found Footage look made the film or the originality of Patrick Fabian’s character and his arc between sham to suddenly being forced to confront it as real. About the sole novelty this film offers is abandoning the Christian worldview of the original and having the climactic exorcism being conducted by voodoo practitioners – although even then quite why the exorcist write the name Croatoa across Ashley Bell’s stomach is a mystery as this is a phrase that either refers to an island off the coast of North Carolina, a Native American tribe or the cryptic phrase that was left written at the site of the unexplained disappearance of the colonists at Roanoke in 1590.
Ed Gass-Donnelley next stayed with the horror genre for the fugue state horror film Lavender (2016).