On a purely fiscal level, I understand why studios acquire movies like The Devil Inside. Shot on digital cameras with a nothing budget, starring nobody, and pre-packaged with the promise that something will eventually happen—something cool and perhaps frightening—they represent the kind of low-risk/high-reward gamble that, after Paranormal Activity, an executive would be foolish to blink at. It’s just that they’re all the same, right? Somebody sets up a bunch of cameras and waits and waits and waits for signs of the supernatural in every day life: an angry ghost or, as the case is here, a squatting demon. The signs are the same, too. Something floats, then someone floats, then things get violent. Yes, these pseudo-documentaries posit, there are things that go bump in the night. At this point, though, they’re bumping very quietly.
Instead of documenting a haunted house, The Devil Inside concerns itself with the familial history of Isabella Rossi (Fernanda Andrade), whose mother (Suzan Crowley) murdered a nun and two priests when Isabella was a young girl. Official reports have it that Maria Rossi just went crazy–and the Hoarders-like house she kept about confirms that diagnosis–but, three days before his death, Isabella’s father tells her the truth: Maria killed those people during an exorcism, which explains why she’s been confined to a mental institute just outside the walls of the Vatican for the past 20 years. Knowing all this, Isabella packs her bags and heads across the ocean with a documentarian to find out the truth about exorcism and her mother. Why she agrees to this is beyond me, but I guess I was raised to know the difference between family business and documentary fodder.
The Devil Inside‘s plot is straightforward enough at first. Isabella, like every pseudo-doc protagonist, has her doubts about the veracity of demonic possession/ghosts/the Blair Witch. If the seeing her mentally ill mother some 20 years after murdering a couple of priests and a nun carries any emotional weight, it sure doesn’t register. Rome for her, like many other cinematic doubters in the ongoing struggle between good and evil, is pretty much a paid vacation. Before seeing the school the Church educates its exorcists in, she tells the camera she hopes it isn’t just some crazy Catholic joke. You know, the kind of joke her mother would murder three people over. Exorcism, of course, is not quite what Isabella expected (not enough pea soup), but that comes later.
The movie is presented as a reel of found footage, put together without the help of the Church, who don’t like releasing film of exorcisms to the public. This set-up allows our other heroes, the priests Ben (Simon Quarterman) and David (Evan Helmuth), to rage against the machine a bit. In this new era of lawsuits and YouTube and science, the Church doesn’t exorcise people unless they’re absolutely sure a person is suffering from something more than bipolar disorder or schizophrenia. Ben and David, renegade clergy that they are, take on many cases the Church ignores, buries, or otherwise lets slip through the cracks. Using their limited knowledge base and years of experience, they’re not only able to determine if a person is possessed, but they’re capable of expelling the possessive demon. After Isabella meets with her mother, cameras in tow, she shows the footage to them and they agree that Maria is possessed. Until they finally meet her, it really seems like they’re reaching: She’s got inverted crosses cut into her skin. Instead of speaking different languages or even in tongues, she takes on an accent. She likes to swear at priests. Typical stuff.
Once these two strands of plot are joined together, The Devil Inside looks to marry them in a way that is fresh and interesting. It fails for a few reasons. The exorcism scenes aren’t anything close to shocking, relying on contortionists and levitation and the aforementioned curse-hurling as a precursor to the possessed escaping restraints, climbing the walls and attacking everybody in the room. The only people this behavior is new to are those on the screen. Worse, The Devil Inside telegraphs everything that happens mere minutes after introducing the premise. For example, there’s no reason anybody seeing this movie needs to be told by the documentarian himself that cameras will be running in the car at all time. And it’s really convenient that Isabella walks in on exorcism class right at the point when the professor starts talking about Multiple Demonic Possession and the demon’s ability to pass from host to host. There are four leads in this movie. Can you guess how many demon’s Maria Rossi is possessed by?
But enough about the humans in this movie: they’re all very pretty, and if you feel pity for nice looking people trying to make a quick buck off of a mentally incapacitated woman, this film’s for you. Me, I’m curious about the devil inside Mrs. Rossi. Movie demons who their eternities locked eternally in scripted conversations that have the same outcome, every time. Some demons, like Crocell, merely teach liberal arts and sciences when summoned. Some, like Abraxas, become Santana records. The ones we’re most acquainted with inhabit spinsters and teenage girls and wait for the coming of a film crew to let loose with an ever-stagnating routine of blood, spit, and the moderately inexplicable. I wonder: is the demon crippling a woman in a cell somewhere in Rome chosen because he or she is really, really good at telling priests off, or did they merely drew the short straw some millennia ago? It’s an interesting paradox–they seem to enjoy promoting the Devil’s work, but they’re too selfless to issue even a press release. Somebody go document them, for a change.
The Devil Inside. Directed by William Brent Bell. With Fernanda Andrade (Isabella Rossi), Simon Quartermain (Ben), Evan Helmuth (David), Inout Grama (Michael), and Suzan Crowley (Maria Rossi) Released January 6, 2012, by Paramount Pictures.