See that date on the calendar? It’s January again, and apparently that means it’s time for another low-rent horror film featuring everyone’s favorite supernatural diva, Satan. Of all the various prophecies and alleged ancient texts related to the Antichrist and the end of days, there has to be one out there that predicts Old Scratch’s strangle-hold on commercial garbage like The Devil Inside.
Reminding horror fans everywhere that it’s been a good long time since 1973’s The Exorcist, this by-the-books exercise in found footage hysteria and secular psychobabble with a Catholic bent stalks in to theaters looking to scare the pants off the faithful and faithless alike. Director William Brent Bell—responsible for 2006’s execrable Stay Alive—and his cinematographer Gonzalo Amat go to extreme lengths to conjure the atmosphere of amateur filmmaking with purposefully shaky camera footage, painfully false title card disclaimers, and garbled edits to suggest a patchwork of gathered video clips. Although they may not be masters of the medium, I have no doubt that Bell and his team could do a more proficient technical job than this and their attempts to trick audiences into thinking the film is a genuine document are both distracting and laughable.
If the story they were trying to tell were worth the effort and the characters more than thin clichés pulled from other exorcism movies then one might excuse the style. Unfortunately, the narrative content is as haphazard, generic and thin as the contrived aesthetics. Opening with an ominous but obvious prologue that starts by assuring us that the Vatican was not involved in the film (pathetic), Inside presents the case of Maria Rossi (Suzan Crowley) who called authorities in 1989 to tell them she had murdered three people, all members of the Catholic Church there to exorcise her. Instead of going to prison, she’s declared mentally ill and taken by the Vatican to a special medical facility where she becomes a case study and kind of pre-ordination final exam for members of the church’s school for exorcism.
The film that follows takes place 20 years after that event with Isabella Rossi (Fernanda Andrade), Maria’s beautiful daughter and Michael, a documentarian, heading to the Vatican to visit the hospital and learn what really happened years earlier. Once she’s there, reunited with Maria in one of the film’s few chilling and dramatically disarming scenes, Isabella becomes aware that there’s much more going on with her mother than simple schizophrenia or mental instability. Two young would-be exorcists, Ben (Evan Helmuth) and Dave (Simon Quarterman), are Isabella’s eyes and ears into this world and they ultimately agree to help her exorcize the multiple devils who seem to be having a demonic keg-party inside Maria. The Vatican has never attempted a second exorcism because they are afraid of drawing out the murderous spirits and repeating the failure of 20 years prior.
Isabella, in an exquisitely clumsy bit of foreshadowing, worries that she will end up like her mother. Featuring more exorcism footage than any previous picture, The Devil Inside plunges into the content the trailer explicitly promises. Suzan Crowley wanders around mugging for the camera and staring incoherently as bones snap on the soundtrack and she contorts herself into human knots, screaming like a banshee, crawling the walls and eventually engaging in a spiritual throw-down that rolls out the inevitable blood and guts. All of this is particularly nasty from a visual perspective but it means very little because the film doesn’t tell us much about Isabella, the exorcists or even Maria. They are just chess pieces for Bell’s dull and reheated thriller that culminates in a predictable twist and then finishes with an abrupt blackout, dropping in the film’s website for all those who want to, you know, have some kind of resolution.
The tv spots and red-band trailers have promised audiences a grueling experience in spiritual warfare, but all those seeking serious thrills would be better served avoiding theaters showing The Devil Inside and just queue-up The Exorcist on Netflix. There’s a film that gives the devil his due as a fearsome onscreen villain.