“So, you from a cult in the woods or something?” asks the curly-haired girl from “Martha Marcy May Marlene” (Julia Garner). Nell (Ashley Bell) isn’t quick to respond. She doesn’t quite remember what happened out at the Sweetzer farm -- how she birthed a demon baby before a mass of worshippers, how said worshippers then killed a camera crew that had been documenting her prolonged possession by the frisky likes of the evil spirit Abalam -- so to watch the ill-titled “The Last Exorcism: Part 2” is to already know what Nell doesn’t: It ain’t over.
The film picks up from the moment that the cameras (and bodies) fell, with director Ed Gass-Donnelly opting for a crisp, static, widescreen approach to the supernatural shenanigans this time around, as if to apologize for the jittery found-footage tactics of the first outing. Nell is found in a feral state by some unnerved neighbors, and it isn’t long before she’s shipped off to a girl’s home overseen by kindly counselor Frank (Muse Watson, spewing unprompted maxims at such a fast clip that it seems as if he''s auditioning for Scott Glenn’s role in “Sucker Punch”).
Nell settles in, loosens up, finds a job and meets a boy (Spencer Treat Clark) in due time, but of course, it isn’t long until Nell’s past comes back to haunt her in the form of hallucinations, nightmares, flashbacks, masked followers, shadowy figures and improbable fame as a viral video sensation (what her legion of cult admirers would stand to gain by uploading that footage to YouTube and inviting inquiries into what really happened before, I haven’t the foggiest).
It’s girl-who-cried-wolf routine for her and a non-mystery for us, the potentially apocalyptic stakes of which are more often said than shown, and if you told me that Gass-Donnelly and co-writer Damien Chazelle had worked together to retrofit an already generic possession screenplay for the sake of this franchise, I’d believe it. Fortunately, Gass-Donnelly’s prowess as a helmer is frequently on display, eager as he is to isolate the characters within the frame and prone to lingering on quiet asides -- like flies on a bathroom mirror or bicycles abandoned in the street -- effectively transforming the mundane details of Nell’s new life into more ominous indicators of decay and foreboding.
Alas, we also get the suddenly loud dog, the cymbal crash any time someone startles our lead, and just about every other jolt tactic that deflates the film’s carefully creepy approach. Late-night seizures becomes exceedingly bone-crunching affairs, while a neutered throat-slitting begs to be restored on the inevitable unrated DVD. To her credit, all the hokum does little to change the fact that Bell maintains her fragile performance from the first film. The actress is fueled equally by naivete and trauma, able to elicit compassion for her character beyond her tendency for bodily contortions (exploited far less here than expected).
“Part 2” rushes into its climactic re-exorcism with characters hardly established earlier than the third act, paying off few sinister intimations of those characters who had come before, and the ending falls in line with the now-belabored “Paranormal Activity” formula of wheel-spinning and sequel-teasing. At the end of the day, it’s a sure-handed sequel, but not a terribly thrilling one.