As with 2010’s flawed but severely underrated The Last Exorcism, it seems I am once again destined to be a lonely defender of the latest found-footage thriller dealing with demonic possession, The Devil Inside. Like its aesthetic and thematic predecessor, The Devil Inside manages to occasionally make true believers out of both its protagonists and its audience, even when the limited filmmaking techniques and familiar over-the-top possession theatrics sometimes completely (and frustratingly) break its dark spell.
The film opens with that chilling phone call that’s featured in the trailer that’s been giving you the creeps for a few months now, in which Maria Rossi (Suzan Crowley) confesses that she’s killed three people. Upon arriving at her home, the police find a massacre with the suspect creepily catatonic; instead of going to jail, Maria is taken overseas to the Centrino Hospital for the Criminally Insane — which happens to be pretty close to the Vatican.
Two decades later, Maria’s twentysomething daughter, Isabella (Fernanda Andrade), and filmmaker friend, Michael (Ionut Grama), travel to Italy to get some answers about what’s really going on with poor mom and what really happened that night. Maria’s three victims — two priests and a nun — were killed while performing an exorcism on her, and the time has come to determine whether she’s just crazy or actually chock full o’ the devil. At the Vatican’s exorcism school, Isabella meets Ben (Simon Quarterman) and David (Evan Helmuth), medically trained priests who perform renegade exorcisms on the side. In the film’s showstopper sequence, they show off their radical know-how when they cast evil spirits from a young woman, Rosa (Bonnie Morgan, performing contortionist moves that are often painful to watch), though Maria’s case ends up being a bit more, uh, challenging when it’s revealed that she’s harboring not one but four demons that just love to jump from one body to the next.
Let’s face it — religious horror is near-impossible to pull off for many reasons, not the least of which is the fact that it’s near-impossible to match the standards set by The Exorcist way back in 1973. Every film about possession is going to be inevitably compared to that genre-defining classic, so the most that any filmmaker who dares enter this territory can really hope for is that the work is considered to be “inspired” by The Exorcist rather than an “imitation” of it. Director William Brent Bell (who previously made the awful it’s-a-video-game-but-for-real horror flick, Stay Alive) seems aware of this throughout, usually managing to throw in his own at least semi-original spin on every creepy bass-heavy demonic voice and piece of furniture flying across the room.
However, The Devil Inside could be considered more as the companion piece to The Last Exorcism, and not just because they both employ the shaky-cam techniques that have become inherent to the found-footage subgenre (though why Michael, a supposedly trained cinematographer, can’t seem to keep the damn camera still might be the film’s biggest unsolvable mystery). Both films deal with the crash-course “educations” of protagonists who, in a modern world, have no reason to believe in all of this demon crap. The Last Exorcism was really more of a character study than a “horror film,” dealing with a career charlatan who, in the face of an actual possession, suddenly had to step up to the plate (or the altar, as it were) and become the mean motherfu**in’ servant of God that he had tricked people into believing he was for so long. In The Devil Inside, Isabella is driven by a need to bring closure to a dark chapter in her past — and is struggling with the very real fear that mental illness runs in her family and she might one day go as completely batshit insane as Mom. While Devil is heavier on the scares than Exorcism (and oh, there are some truly great scares), it still finds its non-possessed heroine more interesting than the snarling demon-hosts in the corner.
It’s this kind of attention to character detail (and character flaws) that keep both films fascinating even when their respective possession-movie histrionics threaten to derail everything. For that reason, the first half of The Devil Inside, which employs an ever-mounting sense of dread and unease as Isabella goes further down the rabbit hole TO HELL, makes for a stronger film than the over-the-top freak show that makes up the second — which, as with The Last Exorcism before it, leads to an anti-climactic conclusion that will certainly raise the ire of many audience members. (For the record, I didn’t mind the ending — and, without revealing too much, it’s much less a make-or-break deal as it was for many with The Last Exorcism.)
Paramount hopes this faux-documentary horror outing will end up having the unofficial second title of Satanic Activity when it comes to box office returns and the potential for a new franchise. While I doubt this will be the case, The Devil Inside still makes for a satisfying and often fascinating stand-alone descent into frightening territory — though, again, I’m probably doomed to be alone in the dark on this one.