The first film to be released in any year often isn’t very good. They are the films that are quietly released amid award season fare and during the period where the kiddies are going back to school. Even by those low standards, one would be hard pressed to think of a worse start to a year than The Devil Inside. If there is a worse film than this dreadfully inept “found footage” horror coming out in 2012, I hope and pray I don’t have to sit through it. Six days into 2012 and it feels like the top of the worst of the year list is already in the bag. That record has to count for something, right?
Following a 1989 multiple murder in South Hartford, Connecticut, the woman accused is whisked away to Italy following the “not guilty by reason of insanity” verdict against her. Vatican doctors and priests want to examine her for the possibility of a demonic possession. The woman’s daughter, Isabella (Fernanda Andrade), teams up with a documentary filmmaker (Ionut Grama) in 2009 to go to the holy city in Italy (read: very obviously Romania) for answers. While there, she meets a pair of renegade priests (Simon Quarterman and Evan Helmuth) who perform exorcisms outside the eye of a Catholic church, but who would prefer to ignore the prospect of demonic possession altogether.
The priests talk A LOT about what possession entails before taking Isabella to an actual exorcism (complete with menstrual blood exploding all over an overhead camera in the one gleefully deranged moment the movie has). Then eventually they get around to taking care of Isabella’s mother (OR DID THEY?!?) before a perfunctory twist that doesn’t have to be spelled out to be awful and an ending so atrocious that some people in the preview screening – who started off excited to see the movie based on the strength of an admittedly decent trailer and all of whom were seeing it for free – both booed and slow clapped it off the screen.
It’s easy to pick on found footage films for being done to death in recent years, but The Devil Inside marks the ultimate tipping point. Writer-director William Brent Bell (Stay Alive) has no concept whatsoever of how to make a found footage movie. Jumping around between every possible cliché in the found footage playbook and utilizing every possibly shaky-cam style he can get his hands on (from security cameras, to handheld, to dashboard cameras, to the ludicrously named “pupil cam” that never once focuses on a person’s pupils), Bell mistakes shakiness and forced editing for actual action. Not once is the audience ever convinced they are watching anything other than a movie. In comparison to the Paranormal Activity films or Cloverfield – which know exactly how to generate tension within a narrow frame – Bell seems to be working from a script designed to be a full budget film and not a half-assed mockumentary.
Bell even directs his actors as if they were in a film. Andrade and Quarterman (who fares the best of the cast simply because he looks strikingly like Joel Edgerton or Leigh Whannell if you squint a lot) are never once believable amid their settings. They never once give off the impression that they are remotely in any sort of danger. These are clearly actors playing roles on sound stages with “clever” tricks designed to obscure how cheap the movie is.
But how about those scares, you ask? They don’t exist. Bell has made a film that thinks it’s far cleverer than it actually is. The first moment of “terror” comes 45 minutes into an 80 minute movie (that also has, no joke, 9 minutes of super slow credits) and it’s a jump scare involving a dog too large to sneak up on anything approaching a fence. The low key approach where everyone just sits and talks endlessly might have worked in better hands and with better writing, but it leads to everything feeling way too obvious. The arguments of the first half of the film are circular and nonsensical (especially with regard to where Christianity and science meet), and the brief set pieces of the second half of the film lapse into sub-Exorcist II aping complete with the immortal line “I’m going to rip your tongue out and use it to skull fuck the baby killer.” The movie peaks at that exact moment, since the actual exorcisms feel like a Three Stooges number choreographed by an obviously trolling Harmony Korine.
There’s a scene, not too long before the end of the movie, where Bell stops the action so Isabella can drop everything she’s doing to frantically look for her keys in her purse. The scene, like many others in The Devil Inside, holds no purpose. At this moment (about 15 minutes before the end), viewers who already don’t like what they have seen should just leave the theatre. The ending of this film is quite possibly the worst ending to a film in recent history. Bad movie aficionados might get a kick out of it, but it isn’t worth paying for. Those who sit through the entire sordid experience will likely be paying for the rest of their lives.
(Side note: The Devil Inside marks the first release for Paramount’s new subdivision, Insurge, which will distribute only microbudget films. This film is so toxic, it might kill the label before it even gets off the ground.)