The jump scare can be a problematic tool. It works on a purely physical level: Our fight-or-flight response to things suddenly jumping out in our faces is biological imperative, not filmmaking artistry. But some movies employ it wisely, building up to their big “boo!” moments in ways that don’t seem cheap or opportunistic. (Think of Mama, earlier this year.) But most horror films nowadays rely on jump scares because they don’t have much else to go with. The Last Exorcism Part II fits in a third category: For much of its running time, it’s a surprisingly effective, almost classically restrained thriller that builds its tension slowly, methodically. But then it pees in its own soup by larding itself up with jump scares galore, almost destroying the uneasy, chilling mood it’s created.
Those who saw the first film might be surprised to hear this one described as “classical,” since the original was another of those disposable found-footage horror flicks, albeit with some genuinely scary moments. Part II picks up soon after the events of the first film and features the same central possessed character: Nell (Ashley Bell), a young woman who, when we first see her, is terrorizing a married couple in their home like some kind of demon. Taken to a kind of recovery home for troubled female souls, Nell starts a new life under the kindly but disbelieving eye of social worker Frank Merle (Muse Watson). Sure enough, the demon that possessed her, Abalam, isn’t far away, and things start to go off-kilter fairly quickly.
Unlike many of the other directors working in the genre today, director Ed Gass-Donnelly uses out-of-focus background elements, long takes, and deliberate pacing to create a world where everything seems slightly unhinged, where anything seems possible — more David Lynch than Eli Roth (though Roth is one of the executive producers of this film). Bell, who was also in the first film, has a similarly uncomfortable quality that serves her nicely. She seems uneasy in her own skin, an innocent to whom everything seems new and either wondrous or threatening. It’s a smart, elemental performance: We can see doubt and relief and anger and fear work their way across her face, almost like a child’s. At times, you feel like this could be a silent film. (And with harebrained dialogue like “I don’t believe in ghosts, but I do believe in people,” you often wish it were.)
Anyway, that’s the good news. The bad news is that this matter-of-fact, brick-by-brick approach to building scares and tension probably won’t work for audiences who just want to scream a lot, so Gass-Donnelly undercuts it all by haphazardly tossing in jump scares of the cheapest, most predictable kind, which force their own, crippling rhythm to the movie. Instead of experiencing the slow build of tension, watching this girl’s reality unravel around her, we wind up being carried along from cheap thrill to cheap thrill. And they’re not even particularly good thrills. If you watch closely enough, you’ll see that somewhere inside The Last Exorcism Part II is a very good thriller — a genuinely unnerving movie about possession — struggling to get out. But then the sound drops out, the music shrieks, a figure jumps out, and we’re back to the same old, same old.