A lot of people these days criticize mockumentaries and “found footage” films. I’ve always been one of their defenders. I think the style allow for more realism. Conventional horror movie techniques are overshadowed in favor of simple, subtle frights, not exaggerated violence and “Boo!” scares. After watching The Devil Inside, though, I’m quickly changing my tune. This subgenre of film has presented only a small number of tricks and after The Blair Witch Project, The Last Exorcism, REC and three Paranormal Activity films, I think we’ve just about seen them all.
The story of The Devil Inside revolves around a young woman named Isabella Rossi (Fernanda Andrade) who wishes to know whether her mother (Suzan Crowley), who was institutionalized after murdering three people years ago, is simply crazy or possessed by the devil (take a guess which one it is). So she employs the help of two Catholic priests-in-training named Ben (Simon Quarterman) and David (Evan Helmuth) who agree to let her and her documentary filmmaker film them as they perform an exorcism without the church’s permission.
Of course, that begs the question, why in the world would they do that? As the film so kindly points out, performing an exorcism without the church’s permission is grounds for excommunication, but they let them keep right on filming anyway. “All media coverage is banned,” one of the priests even says as they drive to perform an exorcism while the documentarian lugs his camera around, as if a documentary is somehow more acceptable. It’s a lapse of logic so huge that it’s impossible to get past. Watching this movie is like watching someone accidentally walk into a glass door, pause for a second and then do it again. You can’t help but throw your hands up and laugh at what I feel I can safely say is the most poorly planned out movie I’ve seen in years.
If Wikipedia is to be believed, Paramount Pictures snatched up the rights to this movie with the hopes that it would turn into their next Paranormal Activity. There are clearly hints of that film (and about a dozen others) in this one, but there’s a difference between using it as inspiration and simply riding its coattails. The Devil Inside clearly does the latter. One can’t help but get the sneaking suspicion that if horror mockumentaries hadn’t gained so much popularity over the last few years, this never would have been made. In a strange way, it makes all the great movies that have come before seem redundant.
Think of your five favorite foods in the world. Then think about blending them together and choking them down. So much good has suddenly become bad. The Devil Inside is kind of like that. It begins like the brilliant Australian horror mockumentary, Lake Mungo, complete with talking heads and back story akin to an actual documentary. It’s also very much like the aforementioned Paranormal Activity, with a number of cameras set up during the actual exorcisms, so as to provide fresh perspectives. At times, it even reminds of the underrated sequel, The Exorcist III, during its dialogue heavy asylum scenes. But whereas all three of those movies are great, The Devil Inside is garbage. Lake Mungo actually had an interesting story to tell with plot turns and an interesting twist. At 77 minutes without credits, this barely has a story at all and it offers no surprises. Paranormal Activity was all about minimalism and letting your imagination do all the scary work. This throws its supposed frights in your face. The dialogue in The Exorcist III was gripping and thought provoking. The Devil Inside was written by the same guys who wrote Stay Alive, which should be all I need to say about that.
If that’s not enough, you have story points that are said in passing, but never explored, like Ben’s haunted past involving the death of, I don’t know, someone and contrived scene set-ups, like when a parent says they needed to move their possessed daughter into the basement for no other reason I could ascertain than because it’s dark, decrepit, scary looking and a perfect fit for a horror film. Its worst offense, however, is its inability to maintain the documentary illusion. This thing uses film techniques that simply aren’t feasible in actual documentaries. Most of the time, it’s small things that most people won’t notice, like a sequence of shot reverse shots where the camera operators would have to be sharing the same space to pull off without time skips, and other times it’s something stupidly obvious, like a long shot that suddenly jumps forward to the object or person in the distance without missing a beat.
The Devil Inside is horribly sloppy. It feels like a college video project, with actors that only strengthen that feeling, and it’s entirely ineffective. If it had come out a week ago, it would have easily made my worst of the year list. It may very well indeed make my list this year, but if it’s lucky, by the time the end of 2012 rolls around, I’ll have completely forgotten about it.
The Devil Inside receives 0/5