By Steven Harrison Gibbs.
A new year in horror cinema is upon us, and kicking it off is another entry into the exceedingly popular ‘found footage’ subgenre. The film opens – as many of its kind do – with intertitles explaining what lies ahead; this is followed by audio and a transcript from a 911 phone call placed on October 30, 1989. The caller, Maria Rossi (Suzan Crowley), tells the dispatcher in a calm, monotone voice that three people are dead and that she is the one who killed them. The film then cuts to footage of an officer documenting the gruesome crime scene at the Rossi house and news coverage of Maria Rossi’s subsequent arrest. From this point on, the focus shifts to twenty years later when Maria Rossi’s daughter, Isabella (Fernanda Andrade), is working with a fledgling filmmaker named Michael Schaefer (Ionut Grama).
Isabella recounts that her father had recently told her the awful truth about her mother, confiding that Maria had murdered three clergymen during an exorcism that was being performed on her. Shortly after her arrest, the Catholic Church intervened and she was transferred to the Centrino Hospital for the Criminally Insane in Rome, where she has remained ever since. Three days after telling Isabella this, her father died. Desperate to know more, Isabella teams up with Michael to film a documentary on exorcism, and the duo travels to Rome to seek out knowledge on the subject as well as Isabella’s mother. Upon visiting the Vatican School for Exorcism, they meet two priests – Ben Rawlings (Simon Quarterman) and David Keane (Evan Helmuth) – who agree to help them with their documentary.
After disclosing that they have been secretly performing unsanctioned exorcisms, Ben and David allow Isabella and Michael to accompany them on one, asserting that the best way to learn more about exorcism is to see one performed firsthand. Thus, the quartet goes to the home of young Rosalita (Bonnie Morgan), and the two priests arrange various medical machinations to aid them in determining first whether she is actually possessed or simply mentally disturbed. In the aftermath of the ordeal, Isabella becomes determined to have the two priests examine her mother, hoping that they can find definitive proof of demonic possession. Then, with such evidence, Maria Rossi’s case could be presented to the church, and an exorcism potentially permitted. This course of action dominates the remainder of the film, which unfolds amid a few twists before coming to a tumultuous, screeching halt after only eighty-seven minutes.
Indeed, the ending of the film has been the most widely criticized aspect of The Devil Inside, and with good reason – it comes off as a rushed copout, as if the filmmakers ran out of money, ideas, or both. Just as the film seems to be gaining an inkling of momentum, it suddenly drops with a dull thud. With that said, the ending is perhaps the least of the film’s problems. The Devil Inside crams almost every tried and tired cliché it can into its brief runtime. Potty-mouthed demons speak in multiple tongues, contort the bodies of their hosts, have supernatural strength, are privy to things they could not possibly know, have a penchant for projectile vomiting, etcetera. Quite possibly the only trope that is (thankfully) absent is the presence of a principal character – generally a priest – questioning his faith.
Performances range from passable to painfully subpar, with the lone exception of Suzan Crowley, who is magnificent during the two major scenes in which she is present. Far from being solely the fault of the actors, the shoddy script is of little aid in crafting believable characters. The crime scene investigation in the beginning comes to mind as one of the scenes that suffers the most because of this. It is exceptionally well-crafted visually; the stillness of the explicit carnage left in wake of Maria Rossi’s murderous rampage is shocking and effective in hooking the viewer. Unfortunately, it is dampened by an uninspired performance from the investigating officer as well as awkward dialogue that feels out of place despite its effort to accurately portray such an event. Further hindering the atmosphere is the cheap, unwarranted jump scare that comes at the end of this scene – a moment that instantly vanquishes any and all sense of dread. Sadly, this is repeated throughout the film in the form of numerous jolts that are implemented in the place of any real terror. When you have to resort to the sudden boom of a barking dog to rattle the audience, you know you have hit rock bottom.
Another inadequacy is the manner in which the film has been edited. The beginning transpires much like a documentary, complete with talking heads, b-roll, and even a dash of (faux) news footage. While this portion of the film possessed the potential to be thoroughly intriguing, it is rife with hurried clips of interviewees who contribute only a few words – barely more than a sentence in most cases – before the frame cuts to something or someone else entirely. The news reels suffer the same fate, as only miniscule seconds are taken from any given segment. The effect of this is that the information being presented to the viewer comes off as incomplete and horrendously disjointed. One would think it beneficial to have devoted more screen time to making this exposition coherent, as opposed to other elements such as the frequent testimonials given by the four principal characters. On many occasions, a random cut finds one of them talking to the camera, confiding in the viewer things which are either already apparent or altogether irrelevant. They are unnecessary and jarring distractions, reminiscent of something one might expect in a reality television series.
Nonetheless, The Devil Inside has already proven itself at the box office by raking in almost $34 million during its opening weekend, scoring a modest return on its budget of just under $1 million. In addition to the financial success, it has secured the third highest January opening ever (the highest belongs to fellow ‘found footage’ horror film Cloverfield). Abetted by the somewhat promising trailer that was attached to Paranormal Activity 3, I would say that Paramount has reaped the rewards of a dicey ruse. For those seeking recent films dealing with demonic possession and exorcism, there are others that, despite their shortcomings, are far more worthy of your time, such as: The Last Exorcism (Daniel Stamm, 2010; also a ‘found footage’ film), Exorcismus (Manuel Carballo, 2010), and The Rite (Mikael Håfström, 2011). However, the better alternative would be to visit your local bookstore and pick up a copy of William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist, which recently received a new printing to celebrate its fortieth anniversary. For a harrowing tale of demonic possession, I can think of nothing more immensely satisfying than Blatty’s spellbinding prose.
Steven Harrison Gibbs is a Film International ‘In the Field’ writer.
Director William Brent Bell
Screenplay William Brent Bell, Matthew Peterman
Producers Morris Paulson, Matthew Peterman, Steven Schneider
Director of Photography Gonzalo Amat
Editors William Brent Bell, Tim Mirkovich
With Suzan Crowley (Maria Rossi), Fernanda Andrade (Isabella Rossi), Ionut Grama (Michael Schaefer), Simon Quarterman (Father Ben Rowlings), Evan Helmuth (Father David Keane), Bonnnie Morgan (Rosalita)