Found footage exorcism flick The Devil Inside, out today, is one of those cult movie paradoxes. It has a cool premise and ultra-creepy special effects, but they're wrapped inside a shoddily-plotted mashup of The Rite and Elimidate. You'll kind of love it, especially if you're a sucker for supernatural horror - but this movie is so aggressively nonsensical that your forehead will be sore from all the slapping.
First, let me tell you the good part. Like any decent horror movie should, Devil Inside touches on a couple of real-life fears, and tinges them with Satan to make them ultra-fucked up. In this case, we're shown a realistically disturbing mother-daughter relationship that will have your skin crawling. Isabella is the daughter of Maria, a woman who murdered three people while they were performing an exorcism on her when Isabella was a child. As an adult, Isabella finds out that her mother is being held in what sounds like a church-run mental institution in Rome, so she decides to bring a sleazy hipster filmmaker with her to film the 20-year reunion with her mom. The scene where Isabella finally faces her hollow-eyed mother, who gives Isabella a growly, demonic guilt trip about having an abortion, is absolutely terrifying. (Suzan Crowley, as Maria, steals the movie with her insane performance.)
There's actually a lot of potential in a possession story about a broken mother-daughter relationship - it could be the nightmare version of Joy Luck Club, smearing the family baggage with supernatural excess. There's also a good tweak to the genre when we meet our exorcists, an ambiguously gay priest duo whom Isabella meets at the Vatican exorcist school. One is a doctor as well as a priest, and they use loads of medical equipment and computers in their exorcisms. It sort of gives exorcists a modern, CSI feel. There's a nice detail where we learn that pupil dilation is a "medical sign" of possession (yes there is a lot of pupil cam).
And that's right about when the movie swerves into lametown. The main problem is that Devil Inside has this totally extraneous found footage structure. Filmmaker Michael is a completely unnecessary character who shows up occasionally to roll his eyes and look like a Brooklyn hipster. His motive - to "get a good film" - isn't very compelling. So what if he wants to get a good film? So do all filmmakers. And why does Isabella want him to film her? "To document it," she says. Really? Why doesn't she just bring a flip cam and post shit to her Facebook account, then? Compare this scenario to the one in last year's standout found footage flick The Last Exorcism, where the filmmakers and their documentary subject have a clear motivation — to debunk exorcisms as fakery — and it runs like a hot wire through the entire movie, adding intensity to every scene.
Of course, if "to get some good film" is your motive, then you can do pretty much anything, at random. Perform an exorcism on a woman who killed three people the last time around? Why not? It will make a good movie. To be sure, there are a couple of great exorcism scenes, complete with some seriously gorgeous/horrifying contortionist work. You'll definitely be creeped out, though you'll be left wishing that the writers bothered to come up with some good exorcist talk. You're basically listening to long sequences of two guys yelling at demons with "God is angry" patter that's so banal you'll start making up your own version, like, "You transgressor! You ankle biter! You SEO spammer! Jesus and God and a bunch of saints won't allow you to send bulk email anymore! Get out of this body before we send an abuse complaint to Google!"
If you've ever seen an exorcism movie in your life, you know that the whole point is that the demons always jump into the exorcists. Again, there's a potentially creative twist here, since Maria is inhabited by four demons and we've got four protagonists (Isabella, the two exorcists, and the filmmaker). Sadly, this potential doesn't amount to much other than showing me something that I guess I always wanted to know, which is what happens to you if you're possessed by a demon while driving. The first sign of Satan, apparently, is that you don't fasten your seatbelt. Impressively evil.
Perhaps the most egregious error in the film is its ending, which falls awkwardly before the film actually reaches its climax - we're left literally in mid-car chase, the screen fades to black, and then we're urged to visit the film's website "for more facts." The audience in the screening I was at actually booed. It felt like we'd just watched an 85 minute teaser ad for a website. Which I guess we had.