REVIEW: If You've Seen One Demonic-Possession Movie and It's The Devil Inside, You've Seen Them All
The characters who manned the cameras in The Blair Witch Project and Cloverfield weren't pros, providing an excuse for the shakiness and dizzy-making whip pans. Michael (Ionut Grama), the guy who's supposed to be shooting the faux documentary The Devil Inside, is a filmmaker, so the fact that he can't seem to keep anything in focus and frames shots so awkwardly is bewildering. Does this guy actually have a faux filmography, or is this his faux debut? And why does he mount cameras in multiple locations around his subject Isabella Rossi's (Fernanda Andrade) car when he's always with her anyway -- does he imagine himself the Abbas Kiarostami of exorcism exposés?
There's a lot of downtime in which to consider issues like this in The Devil Inside, a film co-written and directed by William Brent Bell (Stay Alive) that obviously aims for the same lower-budget found footage niche as the Paranormal Activity franchise. Like those films, The Devil Inside's most substantive aspect is its marketing -- I cowered at its trailer whenever it ran before various holiday season offerings, and the poster highlights a shot from one of the two genuinely creepy possession sequences, featuring Suzan Crowley showing off the upside down cross carved on the inside of her lip. But the reality of The Devil Inside is that it's a half-hearted patchwork of ideas blatantly lifted from better films, with characters who have to act increasingly foolish in order to allow the action to go forward and an ending so anticlimactic and abrupt that the audience at the screening I attended erupted in enraged boos as the credits rolled.
Crowley plays Maria Rossi, a housewife and the mother of Isabella, who one night in 1989 killed the nun and two priests who were attempted to exorcise the demons within her. Judged insane, she was transferred to a mental hospital in Rome, though the oddness of this (is that covered by her health insurance?) never seems to occur to Isabella, who's grown up into a pretty twentysomething when she agrees to be the subject of Michael's documentary. The two travel to Italy, where Isabella plans to visit her mother for the first time while also exploring the Vatican's exorcism school, portrayed as a kind of Catholic Hogwarts with classes into which you can wander. At one of these lectures she meets priests Ben (Simon Quarterman) and David (Evan Helmuth), a pair of vigilante ordained exorcists (totally) who take an interest in her case.
Isabella's initial encounter with her mother at the hospital and the exorcism to which Ben and David later take her are both effective within The Devil Inside's low-budget parameters, thanks to the performers. Crowley, disheveled and bug-eyed, presents an uneasy combination of drugged-up dissociation and ominous flashes of lucidity, and the film's switching between cameras makes the situation more unpredictable. The second sequence, in which the two priests attempt to cleanse a possessed girl named Rosa (Bonnie Morgan), has the benefit of contortionist Bonnie Morgan, who knots her body into wince-inducing shapes that would seem to require supernatural aid to maintain, then spits and screams and bleeds from her crotch. Neither offers anything new -- if you've seen one demonic-possession movie and it's The Devil Inside, then you've seen them all, because it borrows liberally from every one of them. But both show more signs of focus than the rest of the film, which relies on meandering interviews and to-camera confessionals to pad out what little action there is to be had. And while this is a hardly a feature intended to be held up to close scrutiny, each subsequent twist the latter half takes is ever more laughable -- why is a man allowed to just walk away after almost committing infanticide? Why do these characters who are obsessed with possession, who live and breathe it, not notice that it's taking place under their own roof? Does it end the way it does because the filmmakers simply ran out of ideas, or did they become as fed up with these characters as we have?
The found footage/fake documentary approach has plenty of benefits for the horror genre: It doesn't require stars, it offers workaround for lower budgets and limited effects capabilities and it's supposed to look a little cruddy. But good films in this subgenre have great concepts and demonstrate ingenuity in terms of filmmaking. The Devil Inside just comes across as lazy and unnecessarily serious given how silly it becomes -- if it had just a touch of lightness, at least it'd feel like we were laughing with it instead of at it.