Never mind the inherent titular redundancy: “The Last Exorcism Part II” is a generally effective sequel to the 2010 sleeper that injected at least a little new life into the heavily taxed found-footage-horror subgenre. That film found a preacher trying to disprove the reality of exorcisms by filming a fake one, only to be fatally caught up in an actual demonic visitation; this follow-up from a largely new creative team finds the original’s central victim pursued to New Orleans by the same malevolent spirit. Despite considerable competition, the pic should easily scare up the numbers to justify a third installment.
After a brief recap of prior events — all caught on video by the doomed camera crew, now dead along with the protag’s family — the pic drops the found-footage pretense for a more conventional, omnipotent p.o.v. and production polish. The promisingly scary first scene has a couple (Boyana Balta, Judd Lormand) unpleasantly roused at home in the wee hours by an intruder who turns out to be none other than failed exorcism and coven-ritual subject Nell (Ashley Bell).
Turned over to the authorities, near-catatonic with trauma, she’s hospitalized and, for lack of any surviving relatives, placed in Devereaux House, a “transitional home for girls looking for a fresh start.” Kindly manager Frank (Muse Watson) advises her to accept that whatever happened to her was the work of evil humans, not devils, and that she alone decides her fate from now on. After a couple of months, she’s doing very well, getting along with the other girls, notably new best friend Gwen (Julia Garner); working as a hotel housekeeper; anticipating a first-ever boyfriend in co-worker Chris (Spencer Treat Clark); and otherwise enjoying life in the big city after a very sheltered rural upbringing.
But ominous visions return, including visits by the late dad (Louis Herthum) who warns her the demon “Abalam” is still in hot pursuit of her soul, and more: “If he can seduce you, he’ll be free.” Eventually she turns for help to members of a “good” occult group, the Order of the Right Hand Path, leading to a new, rather more paganistic exorcism climax.
This is the most head-on but also perhaps the weakest setpiece here, as director/co-writer Ed Gass-Donnelly fares best building dread and atmosphere. The more explicit its terrors, the less potent the pic becomes, and the finale paints the series into a bit of a corner, as it will take considerable ingenuity to keep Nell’s predicament interesting now that she’s undergone a fundamental change. There’s also a certain monotony that creeps in once it’s clear that virtually every sequence is going to lead up to some scare, leaving little room for more than rudimentary plot or character detail.
The approach leaves Bell, so affecting in the first film (but at 27 now clearly a bit long-in-tooth to play a 17-year-old), stuck playing too many scenes on or over the edge of hysteria. Still, she retains an appeal distinct from the standard-issue genre damsel in distress. Also in contrast with the first pic, none of the supporting characters develop any complexity here.
Nonetheless, “Part II” is above-average PG-13 horror, and coaxes quite a bit of tension out of its waking-nighmare scenario via lensing (Brendan Steacy) and editing (Gass-Donnelly) that constantly suggest something awful is about to materialize or spring from behind a corner. Locations and production design are handsome (though that’s one awfully posh halfway house for girls), with one nice segment making aptly spooky use of Mardi Gras-type street festivities.