This review contains spoilers for 'The Last Exorcism' -- though not for 'The Last Exorcism Part II.'

Nell Sweetzer (Ashley Bell), the heroine of 'The Last Exorcism,' was a great tragic figure; a sweet, innocent girl inexplicably hounded by a nefarious cult and a vicious demon named Abalam. With 'The Last Exorcism Part II,' Nell's story grows even sadder -- by extending it into this superfluous and perfunctory sequel that casts her as a quivering, helpless victim and strips away almost everything that made the first film such an unexpected delight. Gone is the effective found footage gimmick, gone are the profound questions about faith, gone, most surprisingly, is most of Bell's impressive contortionist act. This time, she does as much contorting on the poster as she does in the film itself.

When we last left Satan, things were looking pretty good for the Dark Lord: Nell had given birth to some weird baby creature thing, the cult that had manipulated the birth fed the baby to their ritual fire, and Abalam was all juiced to take over the world. When we pick the story up a few months later, things have gone inexplicably south for Lucifer -- apparently everyone but Nell died during the ritual, leaving her alone to wander New Orleans in a state of shock. Rescued and rehabilitated, she's placed in a girl's home run by a benevolent caretaker named Frank (Muse Watson). With time, he convinces her that there is no demon coming to possess her. Nell gets a job, makes friends, and even flirts with a boy. Things are looking up.

Then suddenly, it’s Mardi Gras. Out enjoying the festivities with some other girls from the home, Nell stumbles on a living statue street performer. "You've been missed," he hisses as she tries to give him a tip. From that moment on, Nell's tentative sanity begins to completely unravel. Soon she's having full-blown hallucinations of Satanic rituals, and even her dead father Louis (Louis Herthum). The message here is pretty clear: demons are bad, but living statue street performers are pure, unholy evil.

Nell's visions return with a vengeance. Is she still possessed by Abalam or is she simply being driven mad by her fear of demons (and living statue street performers)? Since this movie is called 'The Last Exorcism Part II' and the previous movie featured a full-blown demon resurrection ceremony, this question is a bit of a dramatic dead-end; of course she's possessed. Too bad it takes almost the entire movie for anyone to believe her -- and too bad when someone does, it's a random witch priestess lady who shows up out of nowhere and proposes -- what else? -- another exorcism.

The first 'Last Exorcism' ingeniously updated 'The Exorcist' formula for the YouTube age: the priest with a spiritual crisis and the pure-hearted naif versus the forces of darkness, all captured by a documentary crew supposedly making a movie about exorcisms in America. Though its ending problematically deflated a lot of its most intriguing questions, 'The Last Exorcism' was nonetheless that rare breed of horror movie that's scary and thoughtful in equal measure, and it was filled with compelling characters: the confused Reverend, Nell's concerned father, her sinister brother. In 'Part II,' the only fleshed out character is Nell, and while Bell remains a likeable screen presence, she spends most of the movie trembling in fear as she's haunted by terrifying visions. Everyone else gets reduced to demonic pawns in a rigged game.

Co-written and directed by Ed Gass-Donnelly, 'The Last Exorcism Part II' certainly isn't incompetent -- although I do kind of wonder why Nell hallucinates her father with a beard in this movie when he was clean shaven in 'Part I' (this may be Gass-Donnelly's subtle argument that facial hair is the work of the devil, I'm not sure). The film does have its fair share of mercilessly effective jump scares (I'm telling you guys: watch out for those street performers) and its ending is satisfyingly dark. But it is otherwise wholly inconsequential. It's a cursory follow-up to a smart movie. It won't destroy your faith in horror sequels, but it won't strengthen it either.


'The Last Exorcism, Part II' is in theaters now.

Matt Singer is a Webby award winning writer and podcaster. He currently runs the Criticwire blog on Indiewire and co-hosts the Filmspotting: Streaming Video Unit podcast. His criticism has appeared in the pages of The Village Voice and Time Out New York and on ‘Ebert Presents at the Movies.’ He lives in Brooklyn with his wife, dog, and a prop sword from the movie ‘Gymkata.’