Ashley Bell returns to The Last Exorcism Part II, and by doing so she becomes the one great reason to see this film. The sequel to the 2011 independent horror sensation (which I pretty much love) seems like a studio cash in - especially after that film's much-maligned final twist - but with Bell leading the charge the film manages to pick up the pieces and run further into her character's battle against evil.
Both films are essentially about the damnation of "backwoods" teenager Nell Sweetzer, but the tone has changed from the first film to the second. In the first film, Bell's Nell was the innocent who has been possessed by a demon. Now, she's the survivor who's trying to move on with her life in a girls' home in New Orleans while dealing with young love, teenage girl drama, and the possibility that she's still the target of something demonic. You could almost look at the film as a rape survivor's story - in fact, that is an accurate leap to make - but it's clear to us throughout this film that Nell Sweetzer is troubled by more than just human problems.
This Part II is most interesting when it allows Bell to fill the screen, because every trial she faces feels legitimate. The film does a fantastic job of showing things that are out of her control - like silent masked observers and middle-of-the-night terrors - to the audience while keeping the girl unknowing. The film is entirely about Nell's attempts to figure out what is happening to her - one character spells it out, saying bluntly that she needs to choose her own path - but the film gives more information to the viewer than it does to the girl. There's some unsettling tension to be had thanks to this, especially because the actress seems so pure.
Those who saw the first film have already seen Bell do and say a lot of shocking things, and considering this we shouldn't be so surprised by the actress' range here. But Bell manages to restore our faith in Nell in her new environment, and her ability to present innocence in human settings sets us up to once again fear for her when things get out of control. I truly believe her performance in the first film was worthy of Oscar consideration (as was the performance by Patrick Fabian in the lead, but horror never gets the love it deserves) and her ability to take the lead in this sequel only cements my belief that she's a talent to watch out for in the future. The 26 year old is willing to buy in completely to the role and everything it requires, and the range she shows lifts the film above a lot of its problems.
Those problems are numerous, unfortunately. The found footage aspect of the original film is gone, and without another strong presence across from her Bell often has to carry too much of the film's weight. Nell wanders through her bouts with evil without much guidance - save a few scenes from horror veteran Muse Watson (I Know What You Did Last Summer) and the returning Louis Herthum as Nell's father - and when she finally stumbles into someone who will help her it seems like the script is just jumping to a conclusion. This leads to a final act that feels pretty forced, and some New Orleans-flavored voodoo takes away from the biblical battle that has been set up through the first film and a half.
The first film's ending was hated by many, but I've been impressed with its willingness to change directions and shuck audience expectations (while still making enough sense within the plot) since day one. Part II offers a similarly grand final act, but by the time it gets to it the twists that continue to one up each other have watered down the impact a bit. Also unfortunate is the cheap and ugly CGI work that bleeds into the conclusion. I shouldn't be so fickle, but the the final moments of the film offer fantastic ideas to think about and then distracts us from them by showing off some goofy developments that don't appear realistic in any way. I'm truly intrigued by the way the film wrapped up Nell's story (for now?), but the flaws in presentation take away from the effect that these developments have on us. If nothing else, the first movie got it right with its "less is more" approach to the climax.
I want to flat out recommend The Last Exorcism Part II, because I think Bell is that good in the lead and I think the story heads in a fascinating and engaging direction. The film had my attention piqued throughout and wasn't dull for a second, but it makes a lot of wrong steps that seem like shortcuts, particularly in the final act. Fans of the first film and Bell's performance there should at least get something out of this sequel, but I'm not sure viewers will be able to overcome all the little things that just don't feel right. Still, I'm glad I saw where Nell Sweetzer's story went, and if they brought Bell back for an (even more unlikely) Part III, I'd probably check in. This one's at least worth a rental for her work.