Can a second “Exorcism” tame this demonic breakout?
There’s a great, not-so-obvious hook in “The Last Exorcism 2,” which is the sequel to the successful 2010 found footage creeper feature about an evangelical exorcist named Cotton Marcus (Patrick Fabian) who lets a film crew tag along for one of his “typical” encounters with possession that brings them all face-to-face with a very real demon, named Abalam, and Nell Sweetzer (Ashley Bell), Abalam’s innocent teenaged target. Things go awry, but the movie finds its groove when Nell steals the spotlight from the shady minister and “Part 2” – co-written and directed by Ed Gass-Donnelly of “Small Town Murder Songs” fame – picks up immediately after the first film’s fiery climax and remains focused on the plight of poor little Nell.
As a former comic book geek, I perked up because embedded in all of the paranormal hokum is a fascinating question – what if demonic possession were little more than the dawn of a new offshoot of homo sapiens, kinda like mutants as homo superior? Within the framework of the Marvel universe, mutant abilities awaken as part of the onset of adolescence and the initial burst or display of power inspires fear and loathing in most people and responses similar to the Salem Witch Hunts. I daresay I’m far more willing to indulge the mutant hysteria over the witchy-undead movement that dominates popular film culture.
The faux-documentary style of the first film worked because it exposed Rev. Marcus for the fraud that he was, then expertly shifted to Nell to conclude the first story and allows her to takeover the second. Such a reading of these two “Last Exorcism” movies dares to interject a burgeoning mythology into the horror narrative that is manifest in the very transition from found footage to a more straightforward narrative format. By these means, we are witness to the birth of Nell as a force to be reckoned with because she truly is the vessel for some higher darker power, but that also means there’s the potential for her to contain it.
All of which places a huge burden on Ashley Bell, a performer who has a few television and voice credits on her resume, but it is this role that will up the ante for her. Bell’s presentation of Nell recalls Sissy Spacek’s performance in “Carrie” – and quite honestly other early Spacek efforts like “Badlands.” There is a sense of pure madness, a barely concealed wildness to her stare and her raw rural beauty. Bell is earthy and so grounded she’s like a young sapling just pulled out of the soil, gawkily stumbling around on its roots.
With “Part 2,” Nell winds up in a home for troubled girls, who need all the help they can get once Nell starts waking up in the middle of the night after having dreams about her dead father (Louis Herthum) trying to save her from Abalam and herself. The teen angst of Nell’s situation is palpable. She’s been raised outside modern society, so she’s cluelessly eager about technology and caught up in the internal push-pull of her hormones. Like any kid, she wants to fit in with her peers and to be loved by a cute boy (Spencer Treat Clark), but there’s the whole fight to save her soul that gets in the way.
Gass-Connelly teases us with the anticipated spook show tricks, but much like Bryan Singer found a means of capturing the larger social context for mutants in society in the first two “X-Men” movies, this “Exorcism” never forgets that there’s a real teenage girl amidst all of the fire and brimstone.
Reach DCP film critic T.T. Stern-Enzi at Film@DaytonCityPaper.com