Saturday, September 21, 2013

The Last Exorcism, Part II: Little Girl, No Longer Lost

The Last Exorcism was one of those movies that clearly and unambiguously did not need a sequel. It told a well-developed story in an atmosphere of tension and unease, and any narrative loose ends that remained at the end belonged there. It was well-acted and reasonably smart, and pretty fucking unsettling once things got moving. It was also commercially successful enough that someone thought a sequel would be a good idea, and so one got made whether it was a good idea or not. My initial reaction was something on the order of "oh, goddamnit" when I first heard about it, but it got a pretty good critical reception and the trailer didn't make it look too stupid.

The Last Exorcism, Part II does a lot of things right, but ultimately suffers from erring a little too much on the side of caution.

The movie follows Nell Sweetzer - the young woman ostensibly afflicted by demonic possession in the first film - from rural Louisiana to the city of New Orleans. It picks up at an undefined point after the end of the events of the first movie, and wisely doesn't try to explain how Nell got to the city. Instead, we get a nicely creepy opening sequence that serves as a little bit of misdirection and establishes that Nell is on her own in the big city. She finds a place at a home for at-risk young women, with everyone under the impression that she's run away from a cult. It's not an unfair assumption, given that Nell is (as she was in the first movie) very much an innocent. She's a shy, sheltered girl who is in the process of becoming a woman. She is sometimes plagued by nightmares, fragments of memory of what happened to her before, but is in the process of working through them. She gets a job on the housekeeping staff of a nearby hotel, and even turns the head of a nice young man who works at the hotel as well.

She's also being followed from a distance. Shadows lurk behind the door, and something calls to her in her dreams. She begins having visions, and something begins to stir inside her. Strangers approach her on the street and say "he loves you so much" without making it clear who "he" is.

It's shot as a conventional film, instead of in a found-footage style as was the first, and this is also a smart decision, as trying to explain why someone else is filming Nell would strain the fuck out of some credulity. It also trades the claustrophobic feeling of the first film for a much greater sense of space and quiet, underscored by the feeling that there's something sinister threaded into Nell's life. The evil that haunts Nell reveals itself in small, measured ways - a masked figure in the background, mysterious phone calls, voices half-heard on the radio, innocuous remarks with something lingering just under the surface. There's a constant sense of unease as the world gets weirder around her but it's never clear how much of it is her imagination and how much is actually happening, or the degree to which she's ascribing dark motives where there aren't any intended (or where it's just garden-variety dark, like another resident of the house pulling some mean-girl shit on Nell). It's all fairly understated until late in the game, and leaves a lot for the viewer to piece together.

I like horror movies that reward careful attention and don't try to spell anything out, but after a certain point, you begin to expect that things will escalate, that evil will push its way into the world, and it doesn't, not to an extent that really raises the tension that much. This lack of hysteria is generally a good thing - it's nice to have a demonic-possession movie that isn't overburdened with shrieking and screaming and really weird hallucinations to the point that you're like okay I get it, there's evil here - but it also makes it feel a little inert. The first movie played things slow and quiet for the most part as well, but when things got bad, they got hysteric and weird in very short order, like the whistling shriek of a teakettle on the boil. The mood here never really gets up to much past an especially vigorous simmer, and it hurts the overall impact, especially combined with some cheap effects work that distracts when it should horrify.

There's also something a little problematic about the movie's central thesis: The exorcism in the first movie referred to the Rev. Cotton Marcus' last exorcism before he renounced the practice as a sham, and the exorcism here refers to Nell's increasing sense that there's something wrong with her that needs to be addressed. This movie is about Nell instead of being about Cotton Marcus, and part of what's going on is that Nell is finally taking agency for herself for the first time in her life - this is her story, textually and metatextually - and part of that is Nell's awakening into the world, both as someone who is no longer this sheltered country girl, but also someone who is starting to become a woman. There's a strong element of sensuality to this movie. As Nell walks through the street during a Mardi Gras parade, she marvels at all of the colors and textures of the costumes and decorations. She runs her hands along beads and fabrics and drinks in all of the color and music with her eyes, alive in her delight and wonder at the richness of the world.

What's problematic is that this awakening (in multiple senses of the word) is tied up with the struggle for Nell's soul - the demon who supposedly wants her is described as loving her and trying to seduce her. Nell herself is bashful about the idea of romance and attraction, and what's moving her towards her emerging libido is this evil that's trying to possess her. Having the prime mover for a girl becoming a woman being a demon is, subtextually, pretty fucked up, and although I think it adds something important to the movie both thematically and in terms of imagery, I don't like the taste it leaves in my mouth. It does tie in nicely to the idea that the struggle for Nell isn't just between the forces of darkness and the forces of light, but between those forces and Nell herself. She hasn't had much of a say in her life up  until now, and she's tasted freedom. She's been made aware of a larger world, and now she wants to make decisions for herself. The bad guys want her for evil, the good guys want her for good, but nobody's bothered to ask Nell what she wants, and the implications of this are staggering.

Again, though, what could have been a powerful, thoughtful take on a pretty overdone idea ends up being undermined by the story's failure to really raise the stakes or tension. The good guys (a set of exorcists who, while more scientific in their approach that the huckster Marcus, don't seem quite as competent) don't show up until fairly late in the game, and so we don't really get a sense of their role in the whole thing. They're there to help Nell, but we don't know enough about them (or her romantic interest) to get a sense of who they are to her, so what should be a struggle for Nell's soul in the metaphorical as well as literal sense doesn't really feel like it. As a result, the decision Nell makes in the end doesn't feel as earned as it should have.

There's a lot going on here, and I get the sense that the filmmakers were trying to make this movie in a careful, intelligent way. It shows, and it's still easily one of the better demonic-possession movies I've seen (the juxtapositions of the creepy and the mundane, along with the sense that Nell is sort of being pushed around by people who know what's best for her hearken back to Rosemary's Baby, which is never a bad thing), but in all of their caution and care and desire to not overdo it, they rob the story of a lot of the power and emotional intensity it needs to really drive the point home. When something new is born into the world, it screams. This movie is missing the screams.

IMDB entry
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Unavailable on Amazon Instant Video
Unavailable on Netflix

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