March 14, 2012

The Devil Inside (2012)

Ever since the release of "The Blair Witch Prject" in 1999, the subgenre of "found footage" films has grown exponentially, specially in the horror genre. This narrative device, consisting in presenting the movie as the discovered recording of an event by its dead or missing protagonists, suits nicely the horror genre, as not only it gives the film a certain degree of realism, its first person perspective can create a more visceral and personal horror. Over the years, the found footage narrative has been used to tackle many subgenres of horror cinema, from ghosts ("The Blair Witch Project") to zombies ("[REC]"), and everything in between, some with more success than others. The theme of exorcism, the casting out of demons, has also been tackled in found footage films; and given the controversial nature of the act of the exorcism and the difficulties of it, it could be said that it's the perfect material for a film of this sort. Unfortunately, William Brent Bell's uneven found footage film "The Devil Inside" could be labeled as proof that it's not.

"The Devil Inside" begins in October 30, 1989, when Maria Rossi (Suzan Crowley) murders three members of the clergy in her house while they were practicing an exorcism on her. Given the nature of the triple murder, the Catholic Church intervenes and Maria becomes confined to a Catholic hospital in Rome. Twnety years later, Maria's daughter, Isabella (Fernanda Andrade) decides to make a documentary about exorcism, in order to find out what happened to her mother, whom she barely remembers. To this purpose she is joined by filmmaker Michael Schaefer (Ionut Grama), whom is an atheist, but it's interested in filming the ritual. Their first step is to travel to Rome, where Isabella enrolls in a seminar about exorcisms and meets two priests, Ben (Simon Quarterman) and David (Evan Helmuth). After Isabella confesses her reasons to take the course, Ben and David tell her that they actually perform clandestine exorcisms to cases rejected by the Church. Isabella and Michael join the priests in their exorcisms, hoping they can help her mother, who still shows signs of possession.

Written by director William Brent Bell himself and his regular collaborator Matthew Peterman, "The Devil Inside" is built as the edited footage captured by the multiple cameras set by Michael, as they follow Ben and David in their clandestine exorcisms. As written above, the concept of a found footage film about exorcisms is pretty interesting (and one that 2010's "The Last Exorcism" also tackled), and in fact the writers do begin with a solid premise. Unfortunately, that initially solid premise gets slowly dismantled piece by piece as the story unfolds, as the writers seem unable to develop the group of characters they have gathered and instead present a series of derivative scenes that are rarely scary. In movie, a certain suspension of disbelief is always required, particularly in those of the fantastic genres; however, Bell and Peterman's screenplay presents situations where basic common sense is conveniently and unbelievably lost. And for a story where the selling point is the supposed veracity of the tale, this becomes quite problematic.

Director William Brent Bell doesn't do much to improve such a failed screenplay, and limits his vision to an attempt to replicate realism. Unfortunately, such attempt gets marred by his constant rehash of the usual clichés of demonic possession films. Which wouldn't really be a problem (it's impossible to escape the shadow of "The Exorcist"), if it wasn't for the fact that Bell uses them in the most obvious fashion, without trying to give them a twist or two. The found footage concept fails to catch the intended realism, and the work of cinematographer Gonzalo Amat gets lost in a truly messy work of editing. To make things worse, Bell falls in the common problem of films attempting to capture realism: the tedium of real life. A basic element of mockumentaries in general is that as outlandish their premises are, they still should feel like a real documentary. "The Devil Inside" fails to convey the interest, the sense of wonder that real documentaries would capture. And the result is a boring movie.

The performances from the cast are also problematic, as in general, they feel terribly amateur. Given the style of the film, it's clear that most of the lines may had been improvised, but there's never the feeling of authenticity in the actors that would give strength to the improvisation. With one big exception: Suzan Crowley's performance as Maria Rossi. In the scene where Maria finally meets her daughter, Crowley displays such a commanding presence that her performance alone makes what neither the director nor the photographer achieve: give the movie tension. Truly a powerful performance, and one that's tragically lost in the middle of the mess known as "The Devil Inside". The rest of the cast ranges from mediocre (Fernanda Andrade) to downright awful (Ionut Grama), though not everything should be blamed on the actors, as the characters are barely anything more than mere stereotypes. An attempt is done to provide some backstory for the roles, but in the end, the cast members are stuck at playing stock characters.

"The Devil Inside" is a deeply flawed movie, but it does have several good points. For starters, the initial sequence where Maria Rossi's crime is told via news footage truly sets a very good atmosphere. Sadly, such atmosphere gets lost during most of the subsequent scenes, to never fully be captured again. The much debated ending is actually appropriated for a found footage film, and perhaps the only logic consequence of the film's events. However, the problem is that "The Devil Inside" doesn't really have much logic during its entire development and no real empathy is built with its characters (whom are barely described despite having several documentary-style interviews), resulting in an ending that comes up as unsatisfying as barely the characters begin to get interesting when it all ends. As written above, the sudden ending it's perhaps the most appropriate finale for a found footage film, but in short, "The Devil Inside" just doesn't earn its right to end this way.

Since the release of "The Blair Witch Project", found footage films have come and go, some truly displaying inventive uses for this narrative device, and most discovering that yes, found footage is cheap to make, but extremely difficult to make right. "The Devil Inside" is sadly one of those films, a movie that fails to develop its premise and resorts to the cheap surprise scare (which gets so obvious that it's no longer a surprise) to generate emotion, a device Bell had previously overused in his teen slasher "Stay Alive". And sure, surprise scares do work, but its effect is one of so brief duration that when it's not accompanied by good atmosphere or an entertaining story, the sensation is one of being cheated. "The Devil Inside" is sadly an example of a good premise thrown straight to hell.



Insanislupus said...

I really wanted to see this. Wanted.

J Luis Rivera said...

I feel your pain, bro.