It’s been nearly forty years and no one has really been able to top what William Friedkin and William Peter Blatty achieved with The Exorcist. I’m not saying it can’t be done – anything is possible in cinema – but even if a filmmaker were to come up with a fresh idea involving a demonic possession story, would it be as effective? We live in an age where that sub-genre has been endlessly parodied and today’s audiences are even more skeptical because they’ve seen it all.
The found footage/fake documentary had a resurgence in cinema with 1999′s The Blair Witch Project and again a decade later with Paranormal Activity. I’m personally not a fan of those films, but I will give them credit for gradually building tension over the course of their stories. Director William Brent Bell attempts to do the same with The Devil Inside and though the film has intriguing elements, it ultimately collapses from the weight of its own ambitions. Fernanda Andrade is Isabella Rossi, a young woman who saw her mother hauled away from her home by police twenty years earlier. In the fall of 1989 Maria Rossi (Suzan Crowley) brutally murdered three clergymen who were apparently attempting to perform an exorcism on her. To Bell’s credit he opens the film with video footage from the crime scene presented with technology from that era. This truly looks like low grade standard definition VHS more than the recent yet far superior Paranormal Activity 3.
For much of her life, Isabella’s mother has remained a mystery to her and she lives in fear that what Maria experienced could be hereditary. The film shifts to HD video as Isabella embarks on a visit to Italy with her friend Michael (Ionut Gramma), an amateur filmmaker who hopes to document her reunion with her mother. Found not guilty by reason of insanity, Maria has been kept at the Centrino Hospital for the Criminally Insane for the past twenty years. Since the Vatican has deemed her case inconclusive and considers her not to be demonically possessed, Isabella seeks the help of Fathers Ben & David (Simon Quaterman & Evan Helmuth) two young priests in training who like to think outside the box. Against church policy, Ben & Michael have taken it upon themselves to perform exorcisms for victims the Vatican has chosen to ignore. They feel the church’s balance between science, religion and politics is flawed and these two men have secretly aided several victims over the last few months. Their approach also involves science and we get the familiar techno-babble involving brainwave activity and cameras that detect abnormal pupil dilation, actually making for some interesting stuff. Interesting, not riveting.
To show Isabella and the skeptical Michael what they are dealing with, Fathers Ben & David invite them to witness and record the exorcism of a young Italian woman who has been confined to a bed in her family’s basement. During this sequence late in the third act is when the picture really begins to lose steam and even invites humorous commentary from its audience. The influence of Friedkin’s film is plainly obvious with the young woman taunting those around her with profanity, crawling up the walls and even contorting her body. A quick check on IMDB confirmed my suspicion that the actress Bonnie Morgan is a real life contortionist who has also used her unique talent in films like Fright Night, Minority Report and Men In Black II.
The trick with mockumentaries that try to present themselves as “found footage” is that they almost always never answer one simple question: who “found” this and edited it together? Though the scientific approach to exorcism the film occasionally takes is interesting, it can’t make up for its bad story supported by some bad acting. Quaterman and Helmuth are the standouts here and that’s only because the techno-babble they’ve been given actually sounds important. At least for a little while. Andrade & Gramma as Isabella & Michael just aren’t interesting and frankly their characters aren’t even likable. I’d didn’t care much for Katie Featherton in Paranormal Activity, but I did at least feel some slight sympathy for what her tortured character was going through. Isabella’s plight is that she wants to reconnect with her lost mother, yet actress Suzan Crowley portrays the character in a laughable manner. One moment she’s screaming like a banshee, the next she’s speaking in a manner like Mindy Sterling’s Frau Farbissina from the Austin Powers movies. When Fathers Ben & David attempt to exorcize Maria as well they get more than they bargained for when the multiple demons within her decide that possessing one body may not be enough.
Like most mockumentaries, The Devil Inside is shot with a nauseating handheld camera technique that may make some audiences sick enough for a prescription for Dramamine. Michael’s not only a terrible cameraman he’s a terrible documentarian and when he turns the camera on himself it doesn’t help matters. Even more astounding is that when action unfolds in his moving car, he apparently has small well placed cameras in every corner of the vehicle to capture it. How convenient.
I’ve always preferred intelligent horror films over those that are just plain dumb. The last truly great horror movie I can recall from the last decade is The Sixth Sense. Call that film a “psychological thriller” if you will, but M. Night Shyamalan’s phenomenal hit was in essence a well made horror movie. In recent years, I will admit, dumb by-the-numbers horror films can often be appealing, especially if you’re surrounded by a few inebriated friends providing humorous commentary of their own. The Devil Inside doesn’t even fall into that category of horror film. Yes, there are plenty of moments that are unintentionally laughable, but I laughed at them out of disgust. It feels amateurish and overly ambitious which should come as no surprise since director William Brent Bell’s last film was 2006′s Stay Alive, a ridiculous horror tale about a killer video game that featured Sophia Bush and Frankie Muniz.
Bell shows just how much contempt he has for his audience by throwing at them plot turns that make little sense, then providing a WTF conclusion. In what is sure to put audiences up in arms over this film Brent ends the proceedings with an unsatisfying cliffhanger. This is nothing new for found footage/fake documentary movies, but 80 minutes into The Devil Inside the movie just stops then asks us to learn more by way of the web address of a mock site it provides just before the end credits. Instead of making me angry I actually laughed out loud when I saw this because I didn’t care about the proceedings, the characters or what even happened to them after the credits rolled. I know I’ll never seek out that mock website, type it into my web browser or even this review. What I will say is that even though it’s a new year, there are plenty of good films, big and small from 2011 still playing in theaters to seek out. Just not this one.