The Devil Inside Review
Published on Jan 10, 2012
Has the found-footage horror film reached its tipping point in terms of momentum, not to mention originality? Looking at the new film The Devil Inside, the answer would be a resounding yes: co-writers William Brent Bell and Matthew Peterman quite literally run out of ideas two thirds into their faux documentary about the relationship between a homicidal, institutionalized mother and an adult daughter in desperate search of answers. Bereft of an ending that concludes its story (much less completes it) and otherwise constructed on a familiar foundation of jump scares and conventional depictions of devilish behavior, The Devil Inside is at best a placeholder for better films, and a reminder that gimmicks – be they technical or narrative - will get a filmmaker only so far.
Opening with remarkably authentic-looking footage of a news report from 1989 about a triple homicide in Hartford, CT, the film chronicles the life of Maria Rossi (Suzan Crowley), a wife and mother who was institutionalized in Rome after allegedly committing the murders. Twenty years later, her grown-up daughter Isabella (Fernanda Andrade) recruits a documentarian named Michael (Ionut Grama) to help her track down her mother in the hopes of reconnecting with her, and if possible, figuring out a way to exorcise whatever evil spirits are controlling her. Arriving at the Vatican, Isabella befriends two young priests, Ben (Simon Quarterman) and David (Evan Helmuth), who eventually reveal that they have been conducting exorcisms in spite of the Catholic church’s strict rules prohibiting them. But after Michael and Isabella film Ben and David’s attempt to contact the spirit – or as they quickly discover, spirits - within Maria, the curious foursome succumbs to strange behavior of their own, which they have difficulty determining whether it’s the stress of their experiences, or something more sinister.
Truth be told, the first hour is passably entertaining, albeit in a way that leads audiences to expect some sort of pay off to the ambiguities of the characters’ backgrounds, and the uncertainties about what is actually happening. For example, Isabella’s first encounter with her mother is suitably tense, and Ben and David’s attempt to exorcise the demon (or demons) inside Maria is a great mid-movie set piece. But Bell and Peterman seem interested only in setting a series of potentially intriguing ideas, not actually exploring, and especially not resolving the questions that linger about them. There’s literally no conclusion of Maria’s story at all – not even a return to it after the exorcism – and Ben and David’s efforts reveal no concrete proof of anything that contributes to the rest of the story, much less sets up future ones. And the majority of the actual scares in the film come entirely from cliched choices like lights going out unexpectedly, people and things making extremely loud noises, and objects flying propulsively at the camera.
Meanwhile, the idea of spirit transference is so superficially explored that the movie makes it seem as if one could become possessed by an evil spirit as easily as you could catch a cold. And most disappointingly, there’s not a single deeper thought given to the idea of religion, God, the Devil, exorcism, or faith than “what happens if a girl runs up a wall?” Even the subject matter of the demons’ conversations – secret abortions, homosexuality, hidden personal transgressions – feel cribbed from past exorcism movies, and it’s explored with a deeply predictable sort of potty-mouthed insensitivity.
Speaking with co-writer and director William Brent Bell about The Devil Inside, he explained they were less going for a found-footage film in the style of Paranormal Activity than a true-crime documentary about a homicidal exorcism and its aftermath. “When we started building this movie, it was a couple of years ago, and the only thing we kind of referenced was ‘The Blair Witch Project’ and doing something kind of similar to that,” Bell said. Paranormal hadn’t come out yet, so how we wanted to make it different was we wanted the beginning of the film to feel like a true-crime doc.”
“We wanted to really play with the lines of what’s real and what is not,” he continued. “I think initially it should feel like a documentary, and then as the movie spirals out of control, it starts to take place a little more like real time.”
Bell revealed that the original idea for The Devil Inside came from a real news report, not the opportunity to capitalize on a successful horror subgenre – or one that they hoped would eventually become successful. “We read an article that the Vatican had started a school for exorcism in 2005, and that was where the seed of the idea came from,” he said. “[We wanted] to write a script about regular people, people we relate to, learning about possession and exorcism in a way that we never have before.” Meanwhile, the film’s ending has generated immediate controversy thanks to its surprising abruptness and ambiguity, but mostly because paying moviegoers are being instructed to go to a free website in order to find out additional information about the Rossi family. Bell observed that the decision allowed them to retain a sense of naturalism with the storytelling, even if it didn’t necessarily make for a clean or conventional three-act structure.
“Paramount made a very bold choice when they decided to do the website at the end of the film,” he said. “And at the time when that was brought up, we thought that was a cool idea – it was very interactive, nobody has kind of done that, and we actually think it’s kind of cool. Now, some people think it’s wonderful, some people can be really pissed off by that because they think it’s a cheat, but we’ll tell you this: when we were making this film, we made a bold choice of how to end it.” Bell indicated they created several different endings for the film – which appears to be standard procedure for many horror films made today – and elected to go with Paramount’s idea specifically because it was such an unexpected choice. “We had gone through a couple of kinds of endings, and we did this kind of abrupt ending because sometimes, life, as opposed to movies, doesn’t follow a perfect three-act structure.”
That said, Bell admitted he was yet unsure whether that decision was the right one for the film. (Certainly, according to numerous reports on Twitter and elsewhere, audiences are actively booing the final shots of the film.) But he said that in the service of making the best movie possible, he wanted to protect the integrity of a perhaps unusual ending which preserved the structure and themes of the rest of the film. “What we were trying to do with this film was kind of shine a light on this madness that’s happening, and when you’re dealing with real life, not everything is perfect,” he said. “Not everything is solved, not everything ends happily and not every character has a perfect arc that’s finished.”
“So we knew it was a bold choice, and maybe it wasn’t the right choice, we don’t know, but we definitely thought it was unique,” Bell continued. “We thought it was definitely something Hollywood wouldn’t do, but people seem to be reacting to it. But sometimes the devil wins, man.”
Bell also revealed that there’s a wealth of unused content that will likely show up on its DVD release, including those alternate endings, allowing fans to decide for themselves which version works best. But in the meantime, The Devil Inside is proving to be the first big hit of 2012, earning almost $35 million over its opening weekend – no small feat for a film that cost $850,000 to produce – even with an overwhelmingly negative spate of reviews from critics across the country. Mind you, the divide between critics and audiences is an ever-widening gap; but even if moviegoers eventually throw their lot in with their critical counterparts, as Bell said, “sometimes the Devil wins, man.” (Since this interview was conducted, Bell was hired to direct The Vatican, which may use some of the same techniques but explores an unrelated story.
In which case, let’s hope that its success inspires some folks possessed with true creativity to create their own scary stories, or at the very least, helps these guys (or even someone else) resurrect their ideas and explore them in a way that’s a little more worthwhile.