Nearly thirteen years after The Blair Witch Project introduced the concept of “found footage” films to mainstream audiences while simultaneously harnessing the power of the burgeoning Internet to launch a massively successful viral campaign that hinged on audiences buying into the “truth” behind the film, the found fauxtage horror genre continues to chug almost unstoppably along. Unstoppably, that is, until The Devil Inside, the latest on-the-cheap pick-up from Paramount Insurge, the studio’s indie genre label formed after the massive success of the Paranormal Activity films. Like the PA films, The Devil Inside was made for little money by some scrappy filmmakers (writer Matthew Peterman and director and co-writer William Brent Bell), but unlike the PA films, The Devil Inside is almost totally void of originality, style, or even genuine scares, and we can only hope that it doesn’t spawn any of its own sequels.
The film follows twentysomething Isabella Rossi (played with reasonable pluck by Fernanda Andrade), an American whose mother (Suzan Crowley) murdered three people when she was just a tot. After the murders, Maria Rossi was sent to an asylum in Italy indefinitely, a move by the government and the Catholic church that somehow never struck Isabella as questionable or weird. The Italian shuffle makes more sense, however, when Isabella’s father finally fesses up that Maria killed those three people (all clergy-people from her own church) in the middle of an exorcism. An exorcism being performed on her. Gasp. Unfortunately, within days of her pops breaking the news, Isabella’s dad drops dead, so she does what any reasonable child of a possible demon-possessed murderer would do – she hooks up with a documentary filmmaker and heads off to Italy to uncover the secrets of both exorcism in general and her mother specifically.
If you’re wondering just how Isabella finds a documentary filmmaker (Ionut Grama, portraying every negative stereotype of a documentary filmmaker with grating and eye-popping anti-talent) or how she gets access to the “exorcism school” she goes to in Italy or how she manages to take a camera and a cameraman everywhere she goes or how she even comes to involve the two priests (Simon Quarterman and Evan Helmuth) who eventually reveal to her their on-the-side exorcism business or even really just who the hell that blind nun is that is slapped all over every bit of marketing for The Devil Inside, well, you’re out of luck. None of those questions will be answered by the film, but just about every bit of “important” information will be shoved down your throat (you can almost imagine the points in the script that are highlighted – multiple demonic possession, transference of demons, cameras in the car).
While another horror film would make up for all that shoddy plotting and characterization and exposition with, at the very least, some vaguely competent scares, The Devil Inside does no such thing. If you’ve seen a trailer or a television spot for the film, you’ve seen its every scare – and in a more well put-together fashion no less, as the film itself is crushingly boring and free of any type of terror, save the occasional (and wildly unoriginal) jump scare. A film about exorcisms and murders and demons should be jammed with fear-inducing sequences, but aside from a possessed girl who can twist her joints (if you’ve ever seen a contortionist at work, there’s not much to shock here) and a couple of moments of anticipation, there’s precious little to fear in The Devil Inside. It’s a horror film that postures as such – packed with screaming and bad fake blood and crazy eyes and flickering lights as a means to convey what should be terrifying and what is very much not.
The film also never establishes a firm style for itself – opening with police footage and news reel from the night of the murders, segueing into documentary-style interviews, before just giving way to standard found footage tropes (shaky cam! cameras somehow everywhere! running!). Whereas the faux-doc stuff has a kernel of the compelling to it, Bell and Peterman chuck that take on things pretty quickly, turning The Devil Inside into standard issue fauxtage product, a knock-off of something that was already not quite original to begin with.
Yet, worst of all, when Bell and Peterman attempt to ratchet up the intensity, their inability to write or lens a truly scary or even competent horror film becomes completely unavoidable, as the film crumbles into laughably weak plotting and dialogue. For a film about exorcisms and demonic possession, it’s boggling just how often one or more of the main characters will yell “what is happening?!” (well, probably, a demonic possession) or scream “what should we do?!” (geez, you should probably perform an exorcism). It’s as if the film’s own makers have forgotten just what they were attempting to craft – which is fortunate enough, as most filmgoers will similarly forget this dead boring, devilishly uninventive, and hellishly unoriginal film the moment they walk out of the theater.
The Upside: Somewhat well-acted by the three leads. And, yup, that’s it.
The Downside: Frequently just flat-out boring, there are no new or inventive scares, “important” bits of information are ham-fistedly announced, a number of elements don’t make a lick of sense, and it doesn’t add a damn thing to the found footage genre.
On the Side: The film’s non-ending is already getting a shocking amount of bad buzz online. Promo screenings for the film (promo meaning free) were plagued by boos from the audience, genre fans who should love stuff like this simply by design. If niche fans don’t like it, what hope does the film have? (Let’s pray for none.)