It’s a joke, of course, to call The Devil Inside one of 2012’s worst movies: it is, at the moment, the only film to receive a wide release this calendar year. Given its almost complete disregard for normal standards of quality, though, let alone actual scariness, it’s difficult not to imagine it standing proudly amongst the rest of the cinematic chaff of the next twelve months on any number of critical “worst films of the year” lists. There have been a decent number of found-footage horror films in the last few years, and a decent number of films about possession, but The Devil Inside is bad enough to rank at the very bottom of both categories.
It’s curious that anyone thought this film needed to be made, unless you consider some stereotypical Hollywood executive seeing the success of The Last Exorcism and exclaiming: “Yes! Give me that, except make it even cheaper and less scary!” (Which might not be that far from the truth, considering that one of its producers is Hollywood shitmeister Lorenzo di Bonaventura, a man of such cultural malignancy that even pornographers and the guy who created Toddlers & Tiaras would avoid him at parties.) Following in The Last Exorcism’s footsteps, The Devil Inside posits the existence of a documentary filmmaker who wishes to explore the world of exorcism through the experiences of someone who’s intimately related to it. (Said filmmaker also apparently never learned how to keep a camera steady, no matter what the context.) He tracks down a young woman, Isabella Rossi, whose mother killed three members of her church as they tried to perform an exorcism on her in the late '80s.
As the mother, Maria Rossi, has been locked up in a Vatican hospital for the past 20-odd years, the filmmaker and Isabella fly off to Rome, where they’re introduced to the Vatican’s school for training exorcists, or, more precisely, the school where exorcists are taught to assume that most possessions are simply cases of mental illness. (A better film would've explored this angle a bit more, or question whether or not Maria might simply be crazy, but not The Devil Inside. Nope, everyone's pretty much possessed.) Without any time to spare in the film’s 80-minute running time, the exorcism school plot thread is abruptly abandoned as Isabella and two of the students there start engaging in the most ultimate Fight Club of all: underground, unsanctioned exorcisms for which they could all be excommunicated. People crawl up walls, demons speak through the mouths of young girls, vaginas bleed copiously, etc.
It all feels as though it should be dramatic, or at least scary, but if you’ve seen any other horror film of the last few years, you’re likely to be left more bemused than terrified. Director William Brent Bell makes some frankly amateurish mistakes that make it difficult to stay attached to the goings-on, such as having a close-up “pupil cam” that’s focused on the exorcism subject’s eyes, and then cutting back and forth from its view to a wider shot...in which the pupil cam is nowhere to be seen, or in a position where it couldn’t possibly be capturing the shot which we just saw. In an effort to further impress an audience with the film’s unprecedented realism, timecodes are stamped into the corners of many of the film’s camcorder shots, which would be great if they didn’t jump around inconsistently, or indicate that entire nights’ worth of action take place in half an hour.
Worse than these small goofs is the way that Bell doesn’t even particularly attempt to instill much dread in his audience. The brisk running time sees our putative heroes running about from location to location, pausing briefly for silly Real World-esque video diaries, but doesn’t give the moments of supposed horror much traction or emotional context. Found footage films, especially of the lower-budget variety (The Devil Inside reportedly cost a mere million dollars to create), usually rely on creepy noises and shadowed happenings to instill a sense of dread without tipping too much of a filmmakers’ hand, but The Devil Inside boldly decides to keep most of its action confined to brightly-lit rooms where you can see everything that’s transpiring.
Which would be an impressive directorial decision if those goings-on were even mildly scary. Instead, we’re treated to all the hoary old tropes of possession films: CGI-assisted contortion, women possessing strength beyond what they should be capable of, the possessee speaking of events which they couldn’t possibly know about, the by-now-ancient sight of a girl crawling directly up a wall. (The aforementioned geyser of vaginal fluid is either going to be a nice touch or cringeworthy, depending on your constitution to withstand such things.) All of this is, again, brightly-lit, as if Bell were perversely proud of the bargain-basement visual effects he’s marshalling; any other director working on a low-budget film would’ve used shadows and edits to at least try and generate some kind of atmosphere, but everything’s right in front of your face in The Devil Inside, and none of it impresses. It’s nothing you haven’t seen before, and seen better, in any number of possession films, assuming you’re a fan of such things. If you are, The Devil Inside is unlikely to rank highly on your list of favorites, and if you aren’t, well, why are you even thinking about seeing The Devil Inside anyway?
If one had to find something positive about this film, the acting on the part of Maria and the two young priests is at least relatively strong. There’s also a scene late in the film in an apartment that has had its power cut that demonstrates why found-footage, at its best, can be effective: the scene is lit with little but the low-powered lamp of a camcorder, and, shockingly enough, the events within are all the more scary for the fact that they’re difficult to make out. Bell seems perversely unwilling to manipulate the imagination of his audience to lend his film any kind of heft, though, and said scene is likely to perk an audience up all too briefly before we’re returned to the humdrum goings-on of the rest of the film.
When discussing the merits of The Devil Inside, however, special consideration has to be given to its ending. Hyperbole has become the norm of discourse in the 21st century, but even so, trust me when I say that this film has one of the worst conclusions of any movie I’ve ever seen in a theater. The plot is left dangling, the fates of its characters simply ignored, as if an audience (or perhaps the filmmakers) couldn’t possibly care about such trivial facts. (And, to be fair, you kinda don’t by the time the conclusion actually arrives.) To make matters worse, we’re told to visit a website (which I’ll be damned if I’m going to link to) for more information about what happens after the events of the film. (Between this and Seven Days In Utopia, this is an idea that deserves to be ruthlessly smothered in its crib.) The film previous to its ending is merely bad, but it ends on a note that feels punitive, as if the filmmakers decided that its audience should be flagellated for daring to spend money to see it. Small wonder that it earned a chorus of boos at my screening.
I like found-footage horror. It’s a genre that, in the right hands, can be far more effective at eliciting scares than traditional guy-with-big-knife-stalking-college-kids-in-the-woods horror. William Brent Bell does not possess those hands, alas, and The Devil Inside varies between wan amateurishness and outright incompetence in its level of craft. It is merely bad for the length of its running time, and then shifts into a realm where it actively seems to hate its audience. Masochists may find that pleasurable; everyone else is duly warned.
Trailer: The Devil Inside
A film about a possessed woman? What will you think of next, Hollywood! My monocle popped off, I was so surprised!
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