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Endings are always a challenge when making horror films, but
especially in the found-footage subgenre, where coming up with a conclusion
that satisfies both the particular demands of this technique and the basic
expectations of the audience can be a tricky balancing act. I bring this up not
because this review will discuss any details of THE DEVIL INSIDE’s wrapup, but
because it will likely be a dealbreaker for many viewers.
The crowd at the screening this writer attended, who seemed
generally with the movie for its preceding running time, did not care for the
ending. Boy oh boy, did they not care for it. While it doesn’t violate the
story’s internal logic, or betray the technique with which it’s been told, it’s
sudden and abrupt and leaves the viewer hanging, adding insult to injury by
telling us to find out more by going to a website. It may satisfy the aesthetic
aims of writer/director William Brent Bell and co-scripter Matthew Peterman,
but on a dramatic level, for anyone who has invested in the characters and
their situation, it feels like a cheat.
For the rest, THE DEVIL INSIDE suffers from following in the
wake of THE LAST EXORCISM and THE RITE, echoing the general approach of the
former and some of the storytelling specifics of the latter, though it was
apparently filmed before either one came out. And even those two movies
wrestled (THE LAST EXORCISM more successfully) with the fact that possession
films have a pretty limited number of tropes, the bulk of which were done to
perfection by THE EXORCIST nearly 40 years ago. DEVIL INSIDE inverts the
premise of the William Friedkin/William Peter Blatty film; rather than the
concern of a mother for her afflicted daughter, it deals with a young woman,
Isabella Rossi (Fernanda Andrade), trying to uncover the truth about her mom,
Maria (Suzan Crowley).
The movie opens with police walk-through video revealing the
bloody aftermath of Maria’s attempted exorcism, which left three clergymen and
-women dead. Years later as the story proper begins, Maria has been packed off
to a psychiatric hospital near Rome, and Isabella heads over there with
documentary cameraman Michael (Ionut Grama), determined to find out whether
she’s truly inhabited by a demonic presence, or just insane. The debate between
those two schools of thought regarding “possessed” individuals is engaged in a
scene set inside the Vatican-sponsored school for exorcists—a potentially
fascinating subject that, just as in THE RITE, is touched on here but quickly
and frustratingly relegated to the background. (A mock documentary entirely
devoted to this college…now there’s a project rife with possibilities, albeit
one that nobody’s likely to touch at this point.)
Isabella falls in with two believers in the existence of
demonic evil, Father Ben Rawlings (Simon Peterman) and Father David Keane (Evan
Helmuth), who soon reveal to her that they’ve got a secret exorcism business
going on the side. They believe Maria’s got the devil in her, but just to show
Isabella what they’re up against and prepare her for what may well be a
traumatic experience, they take her along on another case: a young woman,
inevitably, with an especially active demon infesting her. This is a first of a
couple of significant casting-out setpieces in THE DEVIL INSIDE, and they
follow the familiar patterns and behavior: the possessees exhibit
super-strength and imaginatively obscene vocabularies, know the dark secrets of
those attempting to cure them and twist their bodies into torturous positions
(courtesy of a credited contortionist named Pixie Knot).
The mock-docu style almost always lends a certain amount of
immediacy to even the most prosaic conventions of the horror genre, and Bell
employs it well during THE DEVIL INSIDE’s rituals, using plausibly motivated
multiple camera angles to deliver a certain amount of punch and skin-crawling
moments that sometimes overcome the feeling that we’ve seen all this before.
Crowley and Bonnie Morgan, who plays the subject of Ben and David’s first
exorcism, really throw themselves into their roles, though as in all
post-EXORCIST movies, the line between scarily overwrought behavior and
chuckle-inducing histrionics gets crossed more than once. The vérité approach
also pays shaky dividends during the too-plentiful conversational sequences;
while the performances are decent in and of themselves, the dialogue often
comes off feeling scripted rather than natural in this presentation, sometimes
giving the odd effect that we’re watching a filmed play.
THE DEVIL INSIDE tries to engage in notions of faith and
belief, with David in particular worrying over his and Ben’s rogue activities.
Ultimately, these don’t amount to much as the film hurtles toward the
culmination of its brief (76 minutes plus some very slow-scrolling end credits)
duration, and additional time might have been profitably spent further
developing the characters. And there definitely should have been more to the
ending, to provide true closure to both these people’s struggles and the
experience of watching them. Instead, the filmmakers sign off leaving the
audience in the lurch. Whatever possessed them to do that?
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