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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Saturday, Aug. 23, 2014

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Ashley Bell stars in "The Last Exorcism Part II," now playing.
Ashley Bell stars in "The Last Exorcism Part II," now playing.

"The Last Exorcism Part II" is pretty much as dumb as it sounds

"The Last Exorcism Part II" is a title that screams, "We were not expecting to make a sequel." But here we are.

The original film, a found-footage horror flick about a disillusioned charlatan priest performing fake exorcisms on New Orleans believers, was surprisingly good until it had to start wrapping up its mystery and fumbled together some clumsy answers (something about cults and a demon named Abalam, which sounds more like a sleep aid than a monstrous hellspawn).

I guess it wasn’t the last exorcism after all, as now there's a sequel, which unfortunately delivers none of cleverness but all of the cheap jump scares you’d expect from a C-grade horror follow-up. I’ll give "The Last Exorcism Part II" this: At least they killed off the found footage gimmick between films, if only to be replaced by other elements equally deserving of death.

Soon after the events of the first movie, the once possessed Nell Sweetzer (Ashley Bell) is rehabilitating from her time with the devil at a home for girls in New Orleans. She’s close to getting a normal life; she’s made a friend at the home (Julia Garner), snagged a job at a local motel and even caught the eye of an awkward co-worker (Spencer Treat Clark).

Unfortunately, she also seems to have caught the eye of some strange individuals meandering around The Big Easy, including a creepy human statue (or at least creepier than usual). It turns out the demon hasn’t forgotten about Nell and has even fallen in love with our poor heroine. Yep, it seems the devil thought he and Nell had a connection back at the Sweetzer’s old backwoods farm and is now stalking Nell – with the help of his creepy cult pals – in the hopes of convincing her that she belongs with him. Jeez Abalam, just listen to some Taylor Swift and Adele, and get over it.

 "The Last Exorcism Part II" serves as Canadian director Ed Gass-Donnelly’s first mainstream feature, and it’s a startling debut. By that, I mean that Gass-Donnelly seemingly has more interest in startling his audience rather than actually scaring them. Every scare is an overdone cliché or a cheap jump, including an accidental homage to the dumb dog that was the shameful highlight of last year’s "The Devil Inside."

It takes no real skill to startle an audience – a quick jolt of movement accompanied by a loud banging on the soundtrack is really all it takes – so it’s disappointing Gass-Donnelly went the cliché route with his scare tactics. He’s actually not a bad director – it’s a nicely, calmly shot film with some mildly creepy moments – but when it comes to actually scaring or unsettling people, "The Last Exorcism Part II" falls on its screaming, demon-possessed face.

Besides the laughable title, the lone element brought over from the first film is its star actress, Ashley Bell. While she was mainly just used for her flexibility and creepy blank stares in the previous film, Bell has the spotlight now. She owns it, creating a fascinatingly fragile horror heroine.

It’s too bad the remarkably clumsy and unnatural script, written by Gass-Donnelly and Damien Chazelle, gives her minimal support. The dialogue between Nell and her friends at the girls house sounds like it was written by someone who has never heard a group of women converse before. It’s a lot of giggly gossip and cattiness with no trace of actual humanity.

There’s a hint of a moral dilemma involving whether or not Nell will choose the devil over being a normal person (tough decision), but it’s barely developed enough to qualify as interesting. The script is more concerned with scenes where an overzealous fan of exorcisms confronts Nell and learns not to bother a demon’s crush. The results are more ridiculous and hilarious than tense or moody.

After the film reaches its absurd climax, complete with CGI fire and blaring rock music (parents in the ’50s were right; rock is the music of the devil!), "The Last Exorcism Part II" loses much of the goodwill Bell’s compelling performance and Gass-Donnelly’s composed direction earned. I like those components, but hopefully the movie holds true to its title’s promise, and this will be the last we see of this limp wannabe horror franchise. 

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