Superstition and folklore run rampant throughout the horror genre. The stories passed down from generation to generation, designed to frighten children and warn people to stay on the straight and narrow path grew into the horror tropes of today. The tales originating from the backwoods traveler or the superstitious people of a less civilized time are the same ones that enjoy a life in mass media today.
We live in a more scientifically advanced age and the stories of the past have been largely revealed to be just that, stories. We now know of schizophrenia and other mental disorders, whereas the victims of these ailments would be accused of black magic or demon possession a few centuries ago. And yet, even with our advanced knowledge and the technology that brings all the mysteries of the world ever closer, there has been a shocking resurgence in the myths and folklore of the past, and even a steadfast belief in it. How else to explain the sudden rise in the acceptance of cryptozoology? Sasquatch hunters were ridiculed a few years ago, but in 2013 they have their own television shows.
The belief in demons is also foolish. And yet, on my way to see THE LAST EXORCISM PART II, I was reminded not just of the potentially fun horror film I would see, but that some people still take this very seriously. I was pulled into the periphery of a conversation between two people debating schools of religious belief. It always amuses me that people spend so much time talking about the first and last books of the Bible, that you’d think they skipped everything in between. Both of these people agreed that evolution was not real, for instance. They disagreed on the existence of dinosaurs, one person saying they never existed and the other saying they did but “Dinosaurs and giants all existed in the Bible. It’s very clear.” They also were very interested in what the Bible refers to as “the End Times.” They enthusiastically talked about the LEFT BEHIND books. “I’ll bet that’s exactly the way it’ll happen too,” he said.
Let me be clear about this, because I’m tired of being nice. If you believe that human beings were molded out of clay, as the young lady did, you are a moron. If you believe that evolution is a myth simply because you don’t understand evolution, as the gentleman did not, you are a moron. And if you believe in a grand takeover of the world as written in a mysterious text so controversial it wasn’t even in the first few centuries’ worth of Bibles, then merely calling you a moron is being too polite.
I could have argued and debated with them at the time, but this conversation took place while I was on the way to my destination. The fact is when someone holds something has profound as religious or political belief, one conversation will do nothing to alter their opinion. In fact, it may have the opposite effect and make them hold onto it tighter under the impression that they are somehow being persecuted rather than merely being questioned. And besides, I was too tired and in too good of a mood to deal with this today. I was on the way to the movies!
And now let’s (finally) get to that movie. The original LAST EXORCISM was a promising film, done in the found footage motif that every other film has since adopted. It dealt very clearly with the antiquated and superstitious beliefs related to religion, and featured a priest who believed in God detailing how the whole exorcism thing was part con and part excuse for deeper psychological trauma. It was a premise that worked quite well until the ending in which the nature of the genre dictated that it be an actual horror film and not something debunking time-honored “boo” traditions.
THE LAST EXORCISM PART II picks up immediately where the first film left off. Nell (Ashley Bell again) is found in a stranger’s home, dazed and disturbed. She is told that she has survived physical and psychological abuse at the hands of a cult and is the only survivor of a terrible fire. As a matter of fact, the film is frustratingly vague about what exactly did happen after the vague cliffhanger ending of THE LAST EXORCISM. What happened to the priest who seemed ready to confront a demonic presence? What about all the people in the woods we saw? Are the creepy people we’ll encounter in this film the same people who were in the congregation earlier or are they cult members somehow summoned to bug Nell via a Satanic Facebook event invite?
Whatever the case, Nell is emotionally scarred and is sent to recuperate in a halfway house for young women who have suffered similar forms of abuse. We don’t learn much about the three other girls she lives with, not knowing why they’re there. Nevertheless, her supervisor (Muse Watson, in the film’s best performance) seems genuinely concerned with teaching her not to define herself according to her past or the abuses she has suffered.
Much of the film consists of Nell’s acclimation to society. Simple things like a job or listening to rock music are strange sensations to those who have been sheltered, She makes a couple of friends and even meets a nice boy (Spencer Treat Clark) who in his own way, seems as shy and awkward as she does. Even if it doesn’t come off a natural as before, Bell does a fine job in these scenes. Looking older than her years, she creates the image of a person who has been made weary by her experiences and yet looks at the world in wide-eyed wonder.
But her past won’t leave her alone. People seem to be staring at her on the street, looking spooky as people who are into demons are wont to do. She starts seeing visions of her father, who she believes to be dead. And shadowy figures seem to be lurking around.
Eventually it becomes clear that the demon who she was possessed by needs to be reunited with her. But instead of being a tool, she has to be seduced by him, giving herself to him willingly. She is already having highly sexual dreams in which there is much moaning and levitating. This adds a layer of eroticism to the story that was quite effective.
But the biggest change in THE LAST EXORCISM PART II is the format. Unlike the original, this is not a found footage film. And really, thank God for that. It’s a more traditionally shot film with no pseudo-documentary aspirations in sight. Footage from the first film does appear here, mainly in footage posted on the internet (Though the ability to cut to several shots within the supposedly random footage isn’t explained there either.).
It is refreshing that this sequel, which could have been an easy cash grab, seems to consciously shy away from many of the trappings that have made so many recent horror films mundane. Aside from an introduction that replays footage from the original film, there is very little quick cutting here. If any flashy MTV effects occur, it is brief and seems to be over footage that would have secured the film an “R” rating if it weren’t present (Don’t be surprised if this gets released to DVD in an unrated version). Instead, director Ed Gass-Donnelly (SMALL TOWN MURDER SONGS) favors long takes and scenarios that focus on mood and suspense rather than false scares or people leaping out of closets. The film is also surprisingly character driven, with virtually every scene hinging on Nell’s naiveté or personal demons.
These techniques are such a breath of fresh air that I feel bad for beating up on the film. I would much rather see a horror film that returned to the traditions of the past or tried to find new ways in which to enthrall the audience, rather than the endless cycle of repetition we’ve seen for the past couple of years.
Nevertheless, THE LAST EXORCISM PART II still doesn’t quite work. The acting which seemed so natural in the original now seems a little more stilted, suggesting that perhaps a little ad-libbing on the part of the actors could have made their scenes more believable. A secret society is clumsily introduced in the third act, popping up without much explanation and then taking both Nell and the audience for a ride. And yet, much like the first film, THE LAST EXORCISM PART II proves to be predictable. There is never much doubt over what it going to happen from scene to scene.
The belief in demonic possession, the Antichrist, etc. is something that horror both contributes to and feeds off of. Most people seem capable or separating fantasy from reality, as I do. But whereas THE LAST EXORCISM had one questioning the nature of Nell’s affliction from the beginning, the sequel goes for a more typical route. There is never any doubt over what’s happening and while we may applaud her decision not to fall into the same superstitious traps of many of her contemporaries, we know that the film is headed in a much more ho-hum direction.
Despite what I have written above, I am on the record as being a tremendous admirer of the horror genre, even exploring it on a more scholarly level. However, this has also caused me to be more critical of the genre’s recent failings. Donnelly tries to create an aura of fear and mystery, but is hampered by a script that felt like it could have used more punching up. The whole thing comes off as more average than it wanted to.
A little introspection goes a long way and THE LAST EXORCISM PART II could have used more of it. We have a good story about a young girl who is torn between the trauma or her past, the unfamiliarity of her present and the uncertainty of her future. And yet, the film does not explore this intriguing notion to great effect. It instead puts an interesting character in the middle of just another typical spookshow. ★★ (out of ★★★★)