With Pope Benedict stepping down just before its opening, “The Last Exorcism Part II’’ couldn’t be better timed.
“Without the pope there,’’ said coproducer Eli Roth (“Hostel’’) in a recent interview, “a lot of people feel that a gateway to evil will open up.’’ Plus, 42 percent of Americans believe in demonic possession. And it’s Lent.
That said, this film’s target audience probably isn’t so much unnerved, devout Catholics as it is anxious teenage girls of all faiths. According to “The Last Exorcism Part II,’’ being possessed by the devil is just another way of talking about the perils of emerging female sexuality.
That’s one way to read this sequel to 2010’s hit, “The Last Exorcism,’’ a “Blair Witch’’-like faux documentary about possession, which ended with young Bayou farm girl Nell Sweetzer (possibly) freed from the demon Abalam, and several other people coming to an untimely end.
Ashley Bell reprises her truly convincing and remarkable performance, again bringing her fragile, avian-like demeanor to portray a girl now on the cusp of womanhood. “Part II’’ finds doe-eyed Nell in a New Orleans home for troubled girls, run by kindly father-figure Frank (Muse Watson). “It’s your fate,’’ Frank advises. “You get to decide who you are.’’
Or can she? The world overwhelms her. A co-worker at the motel where she works wanting to be her boyfriend is a threat; so is a sexually suggestive voice on the phone. New girlfriends at the home are competitive and suspicious, even as they offer a hand of friendship. “Are you from some cult in the woods or something?’’ one resident, challenges. In a clever nod to our viral world, the home’s girls view footage from “The Last Exorcism’’ on YouTube.
As Nell wrestles with recurring hauntings — buzzing flies, convulsing bystanders, visitations from her dead father — the question of feminine authority, and the historical baggage of female hysteria, is the subtext. Are her troubles psychological or supernatural? That provides tension for about half the film. The Mardi Gras backdrop, with its masks and costumes, offers another metaphorical layer about identity.
Fresh-meat director and co-writer Ed Gass-Donnelly (“Small Town Murder Songs’’) wisely loses part one’s mock-doc look and feel. He’s not afraid to lock down his camera, but his story can’t quite live up to the creepy novelty of part one, directed by Daniel Stamm.
Once the “what is real, what is fantasy’’ questions are answered, and exorcism part deux commences, “The Last Exorcism Part II’’ abandons its half-intelligent, tender exploration of Nell’s vulnerability and desirability. We end in flames, flies, and rock ’n’ roll. And Nell’s fate, naturally, is left uncertain.
Look for that to be answered in “Part III: Return of the Pope.’’