The Last Exorcism: Part II is dreadfully boring. It ditches the found footage angle and ends up a third-rate Exorcist knock-off that is completely absent of scares. It steers away so aggressively from the few interesting ideas it hints at that you can feel your brain atrophy as the images play in front of you. When it finally embraces an identity of evil fun, the credits are already rolling. What a shame.
(It also has a really stupid name. How could there be another exorcism if the last one was the last one?)
You might be wondering why I even bothered hitting play, let alone suffering through to the ending. I probably wouldn’t have, but it marks an important milestone: This is the first widely-released feature-length film with Damien Chazelle in the credits. He’s listed as one of two writers as well as the story credit. I’ll speculate a bit on his involvement towards the end of this review.
This sequel picks up shortly after the outrageously stupid and batshit closing scene of The (First) Last Exorcism. Nell (Ashley Bell) is the only one to survive the previous film, and she moves to a home for girls and starts seeing a therapist. This was maybe the first interesting idea that the movie steered away from: The fine line between psychosis and possession, perhaps attempting to retcon the previous movie as a sexually-repressed hallucination. The Last Exorcism 2: This Time It’s Really Last leaves no doubt that Nell’s demon is still lurking, though. And, just like the first film, it’s chump bait, anyways: We’ve seen the poster and read the logline. This is a possession and murder film.
Over 88 laborious minutes, we watch Nell alternately make progress at normalcy, e.g. get a job and flash some goo-goo eyes at a boy her age, then regress, e.g. have a nightmare where a demon tells her to kill everyone. The biggest setback Nell faces is also the most interesting idea that the movie has: The footage of her bizarre past life, which we recognize as footage from the previous movie, leaks online, and everyone alienates her due to her demonic past — all except random strangers on the street, who want pictures with the Devil Girl.
How I wish that this concept had been the entirety of The Last Exorcism 2: A more psychological drama of someone who can’t leave her literal demons behind her until they come roaring out again, whether Satanic or psychotic left ambiguous. A look at someone haunted by a troubling online history. But the movie has no sooner introduced the concept of her past life leaking before it’s moved in a perpendicular direction to a climax involving… uh, a secret society of witch doctors.
The only part of the movie that’s really fun is the last ten minutes. This time, when the movie gets loopy, it improves the film, as opposed to the film-torpedoing insanity of the first film’s conclusion. When the demon, Abalam, fully possesses Nell, she goes on a murderous rampage and kicks off a world-burning apocalypse with her evil mind powers. Nice! But we only get about thirty seconds of this before the movie ends. I realize the budget for this wasn’t too high, but if you’re going to tease a super-devil kicking off the Armageddon, at least let us experience some of that catharsis!
Bell has a lot more to do as the lead of this film than as the curious subject of the last film, and she’s decent enough. At a minimum, she’s never the main problem with the movie: She doesn’t have much material to work with, but she gives it some interiority. Doe eyed innocence remains her default mode, but it fits the film and she does it well.
Along for the ride this time is Julia Garner, who I am always happy to see. Here she plays a roommate of Nell’s that might or might not be a cipher for Abalam. Garner is so much more charismatic than anyone else here that they probably should have just recast her as Nell. Even if it wouldn’t have made sense, I don’t think too many people would have minded.
Alright, so how about that Chazelle credit? On the surface, it’s extremely bizarre and uncharacteristic of anything he would do in the future. His other non-self-directed writing credit from the same year, Grand Piano, is much more clearly in line with Chazelle’s usual fascination of musicians brought to the brink for the sake of art.
Here’s what we know for sure: Chazelle really doesn’t want to talk about it. Find any career retrospective interview, and he dodges questions on it. All he says is that he doesn’t see too much of what he wrote in the final product, and firmly suggests the reviewer to move to the next question. But this is somewhat incongruous with the actual attribution: Chazelle has both the writing credit and the story credit, meaning that he didn’t just work on a draft, he architected the premise and arc and first draft.
I read two unsourced articles saying Chazelle sold the film on spec, which is neat if true, but adds even more questions. A spec script means that Chazelle wrote it unprompted and then sold it rather than writing it after being hired for the project. That would imply that this was not a mercenary job that went poorly, but something that he felt personal investment in. One of the unsourced articles says that Chazelle’s reputation right out of school was as a writer first and a director second, and that studios had more interest in getting him to write or touch up scripts than helm a film himself, though a few were open to that. We see two Chazelle writing-only credits in 2013, so he certainly tested the waters there.
2013 was a busy year for Chazelle: In addition to Last Exorcism 2’s release, he also briefly signed on to direct 10 Cloverfield Lane and directed the Whiplash short film. He dropped out of the director’s chair of the former when the latter helped him find a budget from Blumhouse for his true passion project, the Whiplash feature. Thus, it’s clear that mercenary writing credits were never his endgame.
My generous speculation is that Chazelle wrote and sold a spec for The Last Exorcism: Part 2 which was handed off to a different creative team and totally reworked. Chazelle’s draft (which I’d love to read) might have focused on the more interesting ideas in the film, perhaps creating something more unconventional that seemed compelling on paper but that wouldn’t fit as a safe sequel for a known property.
Whether the hackery is his fault or not, the script is indeed the root of most of the evil in this horrible sequel. If not for the whiffs of a few interesting ideas, a nice Garner performance, and a fun closing scene, I’d have it at the bottom of the barrel; and even with those, it’s close.
- Review Project: Damien Chazelle Retrospective