Written by: William Brent Bell, Matthew Peterman
Directed by: William Brent Bell
Starring: Fernanda Andrade, Simon Quarterman and Evan Helmuth
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
No soul is safe.
Like every demonic possession movie ever, The Devil Inside purports to be inspired by true events, something we all know to be a farce before we ever plop ourselves down into the seat and resign ourselves to the task of enduring another one of these things. In reality, it is actually inspired by the success of The Exorcist, its various rip-offs in the four decades hence, and the recent found footage trend. Paramount actually kicked off that last particular craze, or at least the current round of it, when they acquired Paranormal Activity and proceeded to make a profit that probably exceeds to GDP of some small countries. Since churning out more than one of those a year seemingly isn't an option, they went out and found The Devil Inside to take the reigns from The Rite as this year’s January demonic-possession movie dump to kick off 2012 for the horror genre.
And, just like last year, we’re off to a rather familiar, inauspicious start, because this one is so rote that you’d swear it actually hewed to some studio mandated checklist: there is some footage that has apparently been “found,” and it concerns a young woman’s (Fernanda Andrade) attempt to track down the truth about her mother (Suzan Crowley), who murdered a nun and some clergymen back in the late 80s. She was mysteriously transported to Rome, and Isabella is only now investigating the events after learning that her mom may have been possessed by demons and was the subject of an exorcism.
You can feel the rest of the stuff being ticked off as you see them for the zillionth time--a weird old lady with stringy hair and a spaced out expression who begins to spit vulgarities and cryptic remarks, bodily contortions, exorcising priests, and general resentment among the lead characters (because if your every waking moment on camera, you will eventually begin to hate each other). The best jump scare is a fake one involving an animal, and the two most suspenseful parts rely on easy ways to coax gasps from audiences--a baby in peril and a guy threatening suicide. This stuff isn’t even executed all that poorly--the requisite mid-movie exorcism is actually kind of creepy, and the girl at the center of it should be recognized for her ability to twist and contort--it’s just that I couldn’t find any compelling reason to really care about the proceedings. I felt like the movie was basically coasting off of the found footage premise, as if any sort of perceived “reality” would automatically help us to empathize with the events and care for the characters.
That’s not quite how it works, of course; I’m not even saying that all found footage movies have masterfully developed characters. They, do, however have some kind of hook, whether it be the alluring mythology and backwoods setting of The Blair Witch Project or the suburban, everyday familiarity of Paranormal Activity. The Devil Inside, however, just feels more like a documentary or a glorified human interest story that you’d see on A&E, right down to the early interviews attempting to establish the characters (these, of course, eventually turn into cliché one-on-one confessionals once shit gets heavy--the only thing missing is snot dripping from Isabella’s nose). Sometimes, this feels like City Confidential: The Vatican, as we even begin with “archive” newsreel footage from the late 80s; I guess, if anything, the movie gets that right--it actually replicates the look of 80s video, which is something Paranormal Activity 3 couldn’t boast. With its travelogue approach, it further distances itself despite the supposed authenticity--this stuff just doesn’t work as much when you’re watching people so far removed. Even more cinematic stuff like The Exorcist worked because it was another American middle-class nightmare of suburbia, and The Devil Inside is at its (very brief) best when it’s exploring the gory aftermath of the Rossi murders in small town, USA.
From there, it just unravels into something that gets less and less cinematic as it goes along; maybe everyone involved was trying a little too hard to adhere to reality because any narrative through-line here gets lost pretty quickly. What begins as a girl’s attempt to help her mother ends as a succession of clichés (one of the priests is haunted by a secret involving a dead family member!) and twists that are telegraphed about ten minutes in when the characters discuss the notion of “demonic transference.” All of it leads up to an abrupt ending that implores you to visit a website for further information, which left me wondering if doing so would allow me to download the film’s final reel. Is this the first example of reverse viral marketing?
Blair Witch was of course infamous for its ending, but if that movie was a cocktease, The Devil Inside is the equivalent of someone whispering half-hearted dirty words in your ear for 80 minutes before suddenly slamming the door on you (but not before tossing you some porno magazines to keep you company). The weird thing is that there’s seemingly no real secrets--I never got the feeling that we were moving towards some revelatory truth. There’s never a question that the victims here are possessed, so I’m not quite sure what I’m supposed to be following up after the credits roll.
In actuality, I imagine The Devil Inside is the result of a studio meeting that probably did end with a checklist:
1.) find a found footage movie
2.) make sure it involves demonic possession
3.) it needs to have a mysterious ending; if it doesn’t, chop off the end.
And, if that was the case, Paramount can pat themselves on the back--they definitely accomplished that. The box office will have the final say in this, but their final mandate should have been “make it a DTV acquisition.” The Devil Inside might not end up being the worst horror movie of the year (it’s not even the worst I’ve seen this week), but it might be the most transparent, lazy big studio effort we’ll see. I like that Paramount gave an indie a shot on the big stage, but I've seen some that are far more innovative and deserving of that shot. In this case, being overly familiar and perfunctory certainly isn't a sin, but it's also not a virtue, particularly when you walk through all of these motions. This is the most basic, cynical form of a studio cheaply capitalizing on a trend, but it just reminds me that some footage is best left unfound--or at least sent straight to video store shelves. Rent it!
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