Not All Films that Wander are Lost
So many forces work against The Devil Inside that it's difficult to review the movie objectively. Critics have gone to town on 2012's first mainstream theatrical release--bitter, I suppose, at now having to contend with lowly genre films instead of their beloved historical epics. Meanwhile, horror audiences are left to hope for the best with a movie that combines two sub-genres for which Last Rites wouldn't be out of the question: the "found-footage" faux documentary and the demonic possession flick.
I never advocate turning off one's brain during a movie, but setting the "This is Stupid" dial to about three is always a good idea. It allows for an objective opinion of on-screen events to determine when things are getting ridiculous, instead of preconceived notions about a film's quality. This movie's current 8% rating on the Tomatometer and lousy word-of-mouth meant my dial was stuck on four. The obnoxious opening-night crowd with which I saw The Devil Inside had apparently left theirs running at nine or ten.
Cat-calls, laughter, dialogue call-backs, rampant texting, phone calls, seat-kicking, and just about every other signal that an audience is not locked into a story were so prevalent that I thought I'd walked into a sociology experiment by mistake. But until the last fifteen minutes or so, I couldn't understand why anyone had a problem with this movie.
Using The Blair Witch Project's shaky-cam paradigm, and combining elements of The Exorcist, Ghostbusters, and The Rite, director William Brent Bell and co-writer Matthew Peterman make minor tweaks to a familiar story. In 1989, homemaker Maria Rossi (Suzan Crowley) killed three members of her church as they tried to exorcise a demon from her. Twenty years later, Isabella Rossi (Fernanda Andrade) travels to Rome, where the Catholic church has sequestered her mother in a private mental institution for undisclosed reasons.*
Soon after touching down in Vatican City, Isabella visits the church's exorcism academy and makes fast friends with a group of priests who will eventually help her understand what's going on with mom. Ben (Simon Quaterman) grew up with an exorcist uncle, and was performing rituals before his twenties. David (Evan Helmuth), a former physician, sees his new calling as a way of healing minds and souls, as well as bodies. Isabella soon learns that Ben and David have been doing secret exorcisms on people the church has deemed unworthy of treatment. You won't be surprised to learn that they assist her in bringing dark spirits out of Maria.
I was surprised at The Devil Inside's clever bait-and-switch marketing campaign. Following the team's botched first attempt at freeing Maria, I'd expected them to regroup and return for a big showdown with Satan himself--as always happens in these movies. Indeed, much of the film's advertising focuses on Crowley's creepy rendition of "The Itsy Bitsy Spider" and that black inverted cross seared into her lower lip. But in a great turn of events, the exorcism succeeds in ways that the characters didn't count on, and neither--for the most part--did I.
This brings us to the problematic final twenty minutes, the first five of which were merely okay. If you plan to see this movie and don't want to read massive spoilers, please come back later.
Maria has been inhabited by multiple demons, one of which, naturally, claims to be the Devil. During her rites, a couple of them escape into the bodies of David and Isabella. They don't announce themselves right away, cleverly manifesting as uncharacteristic irritability and nosebleeds--which plays nicely into earlier conversations about the hierarchies of Hell and the varying powers of the damned. Our possessed heroes create suspicion and cause arguments, tearing at the strength of their friendship. Soon, one of the demons gains enough traction to take over David in church, compelling him to drown a baby during a baptism.**
Michael (Ionut Grama), the filmmaker within the film, chases David home and informs Isabella and Ben that their friend has gone nuts. Here's where things go completely off the rails. In one approximately seven-minute scene, David trashes the upstairs apartment and fights his friends; two policemen show up, one of whom struggles with the possessed priest; David grabs the cop's gun and negotiates with his friends before blowing his own head off; Isabella goes into a "seizure" and gets rushed to the hospital. So much happens, with so much shouting, crying, and melodrama, that the film's climax is not nearly as interesting or intense as I'm sure Bell and Peterman had intended.
Nor is the ending, a fantastic idea executed so poorly that my audience broke into laughter and loudly demanded refunds. I can't be sure, but The Devil Inside feels like a slow-burn movie chopped and packaged as an eighty-seven-minute, quickie-horror package. Had the filmmakers gone for subtlety instead of bombast, perhaps moving their climax up by about ten minutes to give the characters a chance to breathe and the audience a chance to absorb everything they'd wanted to say, the results could have been as cool as the ideas.
Yes, I think this is a very cool movie. It's also very flawed, but not as much as people might lead you to believe. I was unnerved by Isabella's first meeting with her mother, even though I'd seen much of it in the trailer. Crowley goes far in making up for Andrade's non-presence; in fact, the Isabella character is pretty much a cipher, an excuse to let demons strut their stuff and for exorcists to riff on church politics and ritual fetishism. My other major complaint is the over-use of Real World-style confessionals, which makes everyone come off as whinier than they needed to be.
Though the film has a lot of problems, it doesn't deserve to be written off as bad. There are enough solid ideas and well-directed scenes here that I'm sure will be expanded and improved upon by a young writer/director down the line. I'd expected to be bored and insulted by The Devil Inside. I left bored and insulted by the cheap, overzealous reactions to 2012's first easy target. The movie merely disappointed me.
Note: Major props to contortionist Bonnie Morgan, who plays a possessed Italian girl. Rather than watering down the demonic aspects of the film with CGI monster-effects, Bell employs Morgan's incredibly disturbing gifts of limb-pretzel-ing to convey supernatural damage.
*Okay, the main "undisclosed reason" is that she's possessed, but the movie must put its characters through paces that the audience skipped by looking at the poster.
**Don't worry. The kid lives.