‘The Last Exorcism Part 2’ Finds Trauma Without Found Footage
August 13th, 2021 | By Eric Langberg
Nell Sweetzer was a horror movie victim first. Then she was a survivor. This twist would be reason enough to mark The Last Exorcism Part 2 as a break from horror movie tradition. But unlike other found-footage follow-ups that reject the filming conventions of their first installments—Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2, Quarantine 2: Terminal, and The Gallows: Act II, for example—Ed Gass-Donnelly’s sequel doesn’t abandon the found-footage style. It actively goes out of its way to repress it.
The last we see of Nell at the end of The Last Exorcism—after a grueling ordeal, battling possession and sexual abuse at the hands of a backwoods cult—her demonic newborn has been thrown into the flames of Hell. In the opening of The Last Exorcism Part 2, Nell is alive and well. She is shell-shocked and barely able to remember her own name, let alone the specifics of what happened to her. “I’ve decided you’re not real,” she writes in a letter to the demon Abalam, part of an exercise assigned at her new group home. Nell’s face relaxes, and for the first time, she smiles.
The Last Exorcism told the story of a priest (Patrick Fabian) experiencing a crisis of faith. In that film, he agrees to make a documentary about his final exorcism, inviting a documentarian to tail him as he solves one last possession in order to prove that the whole endeavor is a fraud. He and his camera crew visit the farmhouse home of the Sweetzer family, hoping to help a sweet girl named Nell (Ashley Bell) who has the ability to contort her body in painful ways. Over the course of the film, the priest and his crew discover that Nell is pregnant.
Operating under the assumption that her “possession” is actually an expression of her trauma and abuse, the film then becomes a quest to discover whether Nell has been abused by her father (Louis Herthum), her brother (Caleb Landry Jones), or someone else altogether. In the end, we learn her possession is her trauma; the demon is real and she was being abused by a local cult leader.
The camera in The Last Exorcism attempted the documentation of reality and is wielded as an evidence-gathering tool meant to prove objective truth. Fr. Marcus set out with the expectation that it will be used to disprove possession; soon he decides that they need the camera to prove abuse. Ultimately, the camera proves both. But this tool is abandoned in the opening seconds of the much quieter The Last Exorcism Part 2, which begins with a shot of a digital video camera discarded in the woods where the first film ended.
What we saw in the first film—ostensibly an objective document of a young girl’s possession—crops up here as flashes of memory. Memory is malleable, even more so than footage. This positioning—the “objective” camera’s output reconfigured as a half-remembered flash of imagery—makes Nell an unreliable narrator, a young woman struggling to understand her own experience. Did all of that really happen? we wonder. The end of The Last Exorcism is so chaotic… was she even possessed? Did we really see what we thought we saw? Are we remembering the first movie correctly?
Nell’s repression of her trauma coincides with a new relationship at the Devereaux House, the halfway home where she is placed while she recovers. “I don’t believe in demons,” says Frank (Muse Watson), proprietor of the group home, discarding Nell’s own account of her trauma. “But I do believe in evil.” The other girls in the home are also recovering from some sort of trauma, which we are meant to view as sexual in nature. During the letter-writing exercise, one scribbles, “Dear Dad, this douche is making me write about the shit you did,” while another letter begins, “Dear asshole, fuck you!” Does Frank discount their trauma in the same way?
Nell’s new roommate is Gwen (Julia Garner), a friendly, blonde cool-girl whose friendship inspires Nell to touch herself at night. Her dreams are plagued by memories of the female documentarian Iris (Iris Bahr) whose boots she coveted in the first film and who she embraced and licked while possessed. What was implied in the first film—Nell’s crush on Iris—becomes explicit here, even as Nell also starts seeing a local boy named Chris (Spencer Treat Clark). After all, it is Gwen who brings out a softness in Nell; a calm, a hopefulness while she is at the Devereaux House. Gwen is safe. Chris’s advances are dangerous because they remind her of what happened to her before.
And then, as unexplained phenomena plague Nell—phenomena that suggest either a spiraling loss of sanity or maybe the presence of the demon—she experiences a return of the repressed. Waking one morning to find Gwen missing from her bed, Nell discovers the other girls huddled around the computer in the den, watching something. “We’re watching you,” Gwen says, apologetically. They swivel the monitor around to reveal Nell doubled over backward in a YouTube video titled “Crazy girl possessed in woods.” It’s the first movie’s footage, found and uploaded online. It was all real. It all happened. And here’s the footage to prove it.
“That’s not me,” Nell protests until the face on the monitor is unmistakably hers. “Where did you find this?” “Your girlfriend found it while looking up the freaky shit,” says one girl, meaning Gwen. The found footage—Nell’s trauma—is thus positioned as something shamefully pornographic, a sort of revenge porn meant to embarrass her. Sure enough, she soon finds herself getting recognized on the street; because of the found footage, she is unable to avoid her trauma—her demons, and her literal demon—any longer.
Nell Sweetzer, survivor. Nell Sweetzer, sweet girl from the woods of Louisiana who only wants to be loved. Nell Sweetzer, a young girl who misses her mother and fears the fact that she still sees her father. Nell Sweetzer, potential vessel for a demon hell-bent on bringing about the destruction of the world.
The Last Exorcism Part 2 could not have been a found-footage film. It’s a film about what happens after the footage has been filmed, and after the footage has been found. It’s a film about how we go on knowing that our past is always there, always available to us, no matter how much we try to refashion our lives into something more cinematic. When the boy down the street catcalls her, he must be another manifestation of the demon. When the girl in the other bed finds out what Nell lived through, she never looks at her the same way again.
In the end, Nell allows another, desperate exorcism. (Cue every critic in 2013 writing about how unforgivable it was to make a sequel to a movie with the word “last” in its title). Like the first last exorcism, this one fails. And this time, Nell actively decides to let said failure occur. She is tired of repression. A vision of her father begs her to commit suicide so that the demon can’t be unleashed on the world. But Nell is tired of living for others, and she damn well won’t die for anyone else. If embracing her pain makes everyone else feel pain too, then so be the price.
In the end we finally meet Nell Sweetzer, survivor, as a self-actualized young woman. And if Nell Sweetzer must be a survivor, then when all is said and done, she’ll be the only one.