Tuesday, January 08, 2013

Cult Movie Review: The Devil Inside (2012)

Director William Brent Bell’s The Devil Inside (2012) is another “found footage” horror film of recent vintage, and one that has met with -- big surprise here -- widespread critical and audience derision. 

And yet plainly, The Devil Inside is not a profoundly bad movie in the way that The Apparition (2012) is, for example.

In fact, much of the Bell film is intriguing, involving, and well-acted. 

In addition, this horror film intelligently addresses its fascinating subject matter -- the apparently similar natures of mental illness and demonic possession in terms of “brain functioning”-- right up until its emotionally unsatisfying and borderline craven valedictory moment.

I’m a stalwart defender of found footage horror films…at least the good ones.  I’ve come to the conclusion that most mainstream critics simply don’t like the form, just as they also never liked the slasher format, or the torture porn format, and have thus tuned out even the better examples of the sub-genre.   These reviewers aren’t taking each example of the found-footage film on its own merits, in other words, but instead lumping ‘em all together as “bad,” a priori.

And indeed, there are plenty of superior found footage movies out there (again, The Blair Witch Project [1999], [REC] [2007] and Cloverfield [2008] leap to mind), but at least The Devil Inside doesn’t make some of the (apparently crowd-pleasing) mistakes of the Paranormal Activity series in terms of spoon-feeding the audience information.  I suppose I enjoyed the film on that basis alone.  It doesn’t talk down to you.

Even The Devil Inside’s unsatisfactory ending is borderline defensible, after a fashion, on the basis of the found-footage template and structure, even if the denouement fails to satisfy intellectually and on human terms. 

In short, The Devil Inside is a good deal more accomplished than most critics claimed argued, though not a film without some considerable flaws, as I’ll acknowledge and enumerate below.

 “In all my years in the Church, I’ve seen the Devil more often than I’ve seen God.”

The Devil Inside opens with a 911 recording from a murderer in the year 1989.  Housewife Maria Rossi (Suzan Crowley) confesses to the murder of three clergy (two priests and a nun) in her home, and is quickly taken into custody by the police. 

In 2009, Maria’s grown daughter, Isabella (Fernanda Andrade) teams up with a filmmaker, Michael Shaeffer (Ionut Grama) to make a documentary about her mother’s case. 

In particular, Isabella worries that madness is in her genes and that it is “just a matter of time” before she goes insane like her mother did.

Isabella and Michael travel to Rome and the Vatican, where Isabella attends a Catholic class on the subject of exorcism.  Although the Church denies that Maria is demonically possessed, two excitable young priests, Father David (Evan Helmuth) and Father Ben (Simon Quarterman) agree to help Isabella understand the rite of exorcism by allowing her to film their illicit, non-sanctioned exorcisms.

At the site of the first exorcism -- in a  creepy basement -- David warns Michael to keep Isabella behind him, an oblique reference to “transference,” the capacity of a demon to leap from one body to another.

Then, after examining Maria at the Centrino Hospital, Ben and David unadvisedly rush into an exorcism of Isabella’s mother, and determine that four separate demonic entities may be residing inside her. 

Finally, after the exorcism apparently releases Maria from torment and possession, David, Michael, Ben and Isabella each begin to act strangely…belligerently.  During a routine baptism, Father David attempts to drown a baby.  Then, upon returning home to his apartment, he kills himself…

When Isabella begins to seize and undergo unnatural contortions, Ben and Michael rush her to the nearest hospital, wondering if the evil inside Maria has spread to them.

“Is it in my genes?”

Bell’s 2012 horror film seems to suffer from two primary and not inconsiderable flaws. The first is the film’s widely-despised and inconclusive ending, and the second involves some third-act “reality TV confessional”-style hemming-and-hawing that plays more like housemate bickering on Big Brother than legitimate character interaction, at least given the film’s setting and situation.

First, let’s dissect the ending.  

The movie reaches a kind of crescendo of madness in a speeding car and then…it stops.  It just stops. Nothing gets resolved and nothing gets fixed.  There's no closure. The film cuts to black, and a URL is thrown-up (though not literally vomited...) onto black screen.  The broadcasting of a URL so quickly -- instead of following the end credits, for instance -- plays as insulting to an audience still engaged in the narrative and characters.  The joke “too soon” comes to mind.  The marketing ploy -- go to this web site to learn more! -- plays as slick advertisement.

Yet, much of the wide-spread criticism of The Devil Inside’s ending qualifies as sort of damned-if-you-do/damned-if-you-don’t thinking.  I’ve read dozens of reviews of found footage films in which critics complain vociferously about characters in said films “filming everything,” even beyond sense and their own survival instinct.  I agree, it can seem contrived if done poorly.  The standard, blanket refrain in the REC movies, for instance, is that "the people deserve to know what's happening!"  Therefore, the camera-person keeps filming.  It can get...silly.

So along comes a movie -- The Devil Inside -- that exploits the form of the “found footage”-style and comes to a final, irrevocable stop at a catastrophic but logical point…a point when nobody could rightly continue filming the story. 

So do the same critics applaud the filmmakers for adhering rigorously to “realism" in their chosen format?

Of course, not.  Instead, they complain that the movie has no formalized or conventional ending.

While I can understand the complaints about the ending seeming like a marketing ploy (with the sudden, poorly-timed broadcasting of a URL on the screen), I would ask for some degree of consistency of argument on the part of the critics.  You can’t complain all the time that the form of found footage is contrived, and then also turn around complain when a found footage film attempts to overcome that contrivance logically.

I actually found the second problem I named above more irksome: the reality TV aspects of the narrative.  

I’ve seen many found footage films of late -- as the reviews on this blog attest -- and many of the films feature relatively weak or diffident acting.  I was impressed in The Devil Inside, however with Crowley, Quartman, and Helmuth, particularly.  

But at one point during the third act, the main characters go before the camera and in talking-head confessional style, begin to bitch about their friends.  I get, of course, the idea that they are becoming argumentative and disruptive because of latent demonic possession/transference (!), but a decade of bad reality programming doesn’t allow the moment to play successfully in that vein.  It’s all very Big Brother-esque, and not in a good way, either.  These moments, especially with Michael on camera being contrary for no particular or apparent reason, nearly sink the film’s last act.

On the plus side, however, The Devil Inside features two point-blank scenes of exorcism which are harrowing and horrific in the extreme.  The first scene occurs in a dark, dank basement and is, in a word, unforgettable.  The setting is grim and scary, and the physical effects -- including a moment of prodigious vaginal bleeding -- will shock you.  

The second exorcism occurs in the Centrino Medical Facility (in Rome) and is effectively shot, if not quite as startling as the first scene.

Also worthy of mention here is actress Suzan Crowley, who gives a kudos-worthy, utterly unglamorous performance as the possibly-possessed, possibly mentally-ill character, Maria Rossi.  There’s a scene early in the film wherein Maria’s daughter, Isabella (Fernanda Andrade) visits the sick woman in the Centrino sanitarium, and Crowley crafts a moment of spiraling madness that proves quite powerful.  

In this “interview” scene there are no Exorcist-style pyrotechnics or Emily Rose-type make-up effects to fall back on, but Crowley -- alternately docile and tempestuous -- puts a fine point on the movie’s central debate: pinpointing the line between psychiatric disorder and demonic possession.  The actress gives a truly accomplished and three-dimensional performance in a way that is, in some fashion, scarier than the scenes featuring a contortionist.  When you look at Crowley's Rossi, you see a very sick, very deranged, very dangerous person, whatever the specifics of her ailment.  Crowley imbues all her scenes with a strong sense of unpredictability, and that unpredictability creates anxiety in the viewer.

I also appreciated how the film spells out the four qualifications for recognizing demonic possession, and how the young priests use cutting-edge science to help them make a diagnosis, ultimately.  Much of what happens in the film’s last act involves the fulfillment (and subversion) of the four stated qualifications.   Furthermore, I admired the way the film took Isabella's  personal quest from one of self-discovery to one of self-fulfilling prophecy.   I’ll confess, I found these touches clever enough  to keep me engaged and interested.

If you love horror films and found footage horror films, and if -- God bless you – you followed me through my positive review of Apollo 18 (2011) and agreed with my conclusions, then The Devil Inside may be right up your alley.

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