2010’s “The Last Exorcism” was a mildly successful found-footage horror movie about a huckster exorcist (played memorably by hey-it’s-that-guy character actor Patrick Fabian) who accidentally stumbles upon an actual possession while being followed around by an amateur documentary film crew. It was also, at least initially, metaphorically rich, with the demonic activity standing in for domestic abuse and the violence often bred by small-minded, backwoods religious fervor. Of course, all that nuance was jettisoned in the last ten minutes, when the possessed young girl (Ashley Bell) gave birth to what appeared to be a small gremlin or possibly the young version of Hellboy. In the wholly unnecessary “The Last Exorcism Part II,” the young girl has survived the demon-birth (or whatever) and is trying to reacclimate to society. Unfortunately, the sequel follows the original too closely, so that any attempt at substantial dimension is undone in favor of hoary horror movie tropes.
After a brief recap of the events of the first film – a choppily edited montage that basically establishes that the south is full of demons, caricatures and ancient ruins – the new movie starts in earnest, with a cheap scare set at some undisclosed location in New Orleans. From there, possession survivor Nell (Bell) is then relocated into a kind of halfway home full of similarly traumatized young women, with everyone reiterating that the horrible backwoods cult and crazy demon business was all a figment of her imagination.
This set-up in and of itself is actually pretty great. Anytime you get a group of women together in a horror movie setting, whether it’s the gym shower in “Carrie” or the ballet school in “Suspiria” or the mental health ward in “Ginger Snaps Back” (which, along with John Carpenter’s ill-fated “The Ward” is probably the movie’s closest cousin), good things will most likely come of it. There’s an innate power to the scenario on a narrative and metaphoric level, and the historic parallels to unnaturally powerful women being labeled as witches is easy to both grasp and apply. “The Last Exorcism Part II” becomes even more promising when they have young Nell working at a hotel as a maid, opening up the film to even more possibilities, including folding in elements of the “haunted hotel” sub-genre popularized by pictures like “Vacancy” and “Psycho.”
There are hints early on in the film, when it looks like director Ed Gass-Donnelly (who co-wrote the screenplay with Damien Chazelle – both of whom are new to the “franchise”) might be digging a little bit deeper. There are several moments when Nell is plagued with nightmares that are paradoxically both horrific and sexual, moaning in her sleep either from orgasmic pleasure or terrible pain, that suggest that the movie will be an exploration of a young girl’s sexual awakening following a claustrophobic religious upbringing. There’s also another great scene where, while at her job at the hotel, she listens to a couple having sex, her face pressed up against the wall in a kind of anguished ecstasy. Both moments have an innate power but are poorly photographed and hampered by a restrictive PG-13 rating, since, of course, violent demonic possession is okay but a young woman exploring her sexuality is not.
But these moments are fleetingly brief and never elaborated on, probably due to the innate lack of imagination on the filmmakers’ part (sequences are lifted wholesale from things like “The Omen” without a strong understanding of why the original sequences worked so well). The movie skates along atop a series of poorly executed jump scares that are never actually scary (someone fell asleep in our midnight screening shortly after the movie started, and his snores were oftentimes louder than the blaring cues on the soundtrack), until it devolves into utter lunacy. All of the promise that the first part of the movie sets up is squandered. Instead, of course, there are some eerie encounters with creepy guys in Mardi Gras masks, some lecherous preachers, and a vague attempt at turning the whole production into a kind of demonic ’70s paranoid thriller.
No attempt at suspense or horror really works, especially when they try to turn Nell’s sweet-faced roomie (Julia Garner) into an agent of evil. So, of course, it’s back to the possessed drawing board, and a climax that clumsily folds in (another) possession. Nell has learned from the voodoo witch orderly that cleaned her up at the hospital that the devil who made her give birth to Hellboy, Jr. isn’t done with her yet – he wants to get back up in there because (get this) he’s “in love with her.” So a hastily organized exorcism is set up, with an actual nurse and an exorcist with tattoos that wouldn’t have been out of place on Keanu Reeves’ forearms in “Constantine,” and all manner of religious nonsense (both Catholic and voodoo) is trotted out in truly unspectacular fashion, along with every exorcism cliche you can think of (as long as it doesn’t push it into the R-rated realm). It’s both exhausting and totally boring.
The best thing you can say about “The Last Exorcism Part II,” is that it didn’t choose to replicate the original’s found-footage aesthetic. If they had abandoned the original conceit and added some visual oomph, along with enriching the metaphoric possibilities, then “The Last Exorcism Part II” could at least have been a passable midnight movie. Instead, it’s the kind of garbage that does a disservice to the fearless possibilities of the horror genre and its knack for sly social commentary. At least there’s no third act goblin in this one. [D]