As The Devil Inside rolls into movie theaters in early 2012, finding lost footage has become a horror genre staple. Unfortunately, due largely to the Paranormal Activity series of films, it has also become a parody of itself, much like the gore-laden Saw films and their equally pedestrian copycats. A scene in Paranormal Activity 3 (which unfortunately isn’t the last) actually has the camera strapped to a ceiling fan – as if anyone in their right mind would actually do that to a digital camera. It’s choices like this that so often make found footage movies fail, but as evidenced by The Devil Inside, even when the filmmakers try their hardest to actually make a film look authentic, the gimmick can become annoying and even worse – outright boring.
The film kicks off with a separate documentary within the actual documentary. Some hapless police officers are investigating a murder scene where two nuns and a priest were killed during what appears to be an exorcism, allegedly by Maria Rossi (Suzan Crowley in the best acting performance of the whole film) – a devout member of the congregation herself. It’s too bad (for the cops) that not all of the grotesquely massacred victims are actually dead…
Cut to the present day as Maria’s daughter Isabella (Fernanda Andrade) is making a documentary on her visit to the insane asylum where her mother is being held in Rome, Italy. She also wants to find out what role the exorcism may have played in the crime itself. There is also the documentarian who accompanies Isabella to Rome, Michael (Ionut Grama). Soon they befriend two Catholic priests they meet in a class on exorcisms – Father David (Evan Helmuth) and Father Ben (Simon Quarterman, who amazingly might be the most well known cast member in the whole movie). Unlike most of their classmates, Ben and David are fairly sold on the fact that demonic possession is real and that an exorcism is the best treatment for people with the condition. Even more, they believe that if the corrupt Catholic Church does not exorcise the demons out of all who are possessed, they should be the ones to make up the difference. Isabella quickly realizes that David and Ben may be her only hope to help get her mother out of the asylum.
That is a compelling if cliched plot, but the 79 minute running length of the movie should give away the fact that it’s short-changed in every way. Like too many horror films – especially ones that use the ‘found footage’ style of filmmaking, this film is pretty much made up of a few centerpiece scenes surrounded by dialogue that unsuccessfully tries to provide some back story. The best of these scenes is the initial meeting between Maria Rossi and her daughter Isabella. Crowley’s turn as the detached mother may be the single thing in the whole movie that succeeds at connecting the creepiness of the subject matter with actual human emotion. The scene where the mother reveals the upside down crosses she hand carves all over her body hearkens back to the scenes of possessed detachment in previous films like Exorcist III and even genre titans like Poltergeist.
Unfortunately, director William Brent Bell (Stay Alive) quickly chooses to take the too-well-trodden path of The Last Exorcist and lets the scene go on for way too long, as Crowley is forced to change suddenly from subtly hinting at possession to screaming out curses and attacking her own daughter. From that point on, the film descends into a mish-mash of clinical exorcisms on random subjects and meandering dialogue scenes that do nothing but pad out the screen time to the point that boredom will surely set in. An idea that works out better to advance the story, but used too seldom, is to have the actors speak directly to the audience in a kind of fourth-wall breaking exercise that has become a staple of the found footage genre. In the couple of scenes that Bell offers us we get to see the characters truly exorcise their inner demons and add complexity to their relationships. While up to this point it is assumed that Michael and Isabella are best friends, near the third act, their private confessionals turn that assumption on its head and reveal secrets they know about one another’s lives that are potent enough to create deep psychological wounds.
But that is giving the script too much credit, since these themes are all quickly brushed aside in favor of purportedly “shocking” scenes occurring after the main protagonists succumb to multiple possessions after an exorcism goes awry. This turn of events sounds more interesting than it actually is, and like everything else is quickly thrown away in favor of… the end credits. Yes as soon as another plot twist is revealed, Brent Bell decides to simply end the film in an edit that can be described as ballsy only due to how it infuriatingly includes a website that is simply supplemental marketing material for the film. This marketing loop with the film serving as it’s centerpiece is a new idea in Hollywood that is dead on arrival judging by the reports of patrons asking for their money back after paying for an “incomplete” film.
It’s a shame really that we have yet another bottom-of-the-barrel exorcism movie to add to a cannon that when closely studied, resembles more of a spoof of the horror genre then the actual dominating sub-genre it deserves to be. I hope the film’s against-all-odds financial success at least makes the big studios take more risks with exorcism films they green light in the future. Sure, they won’t all be gold, but we can sleep easy knowing that clunkers like The Devil Inside are truly few and far between.