I had to get around to The Devil Inside at some time. A low-budget found footage horror film, it was bankrolled by Paramount Pictures and supported with a wide release – so wide, in fact, that this US$1 million supernatural thriller grossed almost $102 million worldwide. Not only was it widely seen, it was widely hated too. Audiences demanded refunds, Paramount did not even screen it for critics in advance, and it’s Rotten Tomatoes score ultimately settled at around the 6 per cent mark. It suffers a level of disdain almost unheard of among theatrically released pictures.
In this apparent documentary, American Isabella Rossi (Fernanda Endrade) investigates the details behind a triple murder committed by her mother Maria (Suzan Crowley) in 1989. Armed with information showing that her mother’s crime occured during an exorcism, and that the Vatican had her transported from the USA to Italy for psychiatric treatment, Isabella flies to Rome with camera operator Michael Schaefer (Ionut Grama) to see her mother and meet with a pair of genuine exorcists working underneath the Church’s radar.
The Devil Inside was a commercial break-out for director William Brent Bell, whose previous film Stay Alive (2006) – Disney’s sole foray into slasher pictures – was a commercial and critical failure. It is immediately apparent The Devil Inside is a better bet, box office-wise: Paramount Pictures had a long successful track record in distributing horror – particularly found footage horror via their immensely successful Paranormal Activity franchise – whereas Disney had simply had a commercial stake in horror distributor Dimension Films and never marketed its films directly.
One advantage that The Devil Inside scores over similar horror pictures is its location. Rather than taking place in an anonymous forest like The Blair Witch Project (1999) or a suburban home like Paranormal Activity (2007), this film actually take viewers to Rome. With supernatural events and exorcisms taking place under the shadow of the Vatican, the film has the opportunity to enhance the religious terrors so well exploited by the likes of The Exorcist (1973) and The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005). That said, while there is opportunity, that does not mean it is fully taken up. Despite an apparent location shoot in Italy, too much of the film feels confined to small rooms and apartment, and despite a few scenes taking place inside the Vatican itself any chance to bring the Catholic Church more fully into the narrative is ignored.
The film also fails to take advantage of its found footage format, which should enable the film to restrict the audience’s point of view and generate all manner of jumps, scares, and moments of terror. Put simply, Bell does not exploit this advantage anywhere near enough. Frightful moments are few and far between, and not particularly effective when they occur. Regardless of any other problem, this is what kills The Devil Inside stone dead: no one enjoys a horror movie that is not scary.
The most contentious aspect of the film, and the one that caused a significant ruction back in 2012, is its ending. Things conclude very abruptly, which is generally a signature technique of found footage cinema, but in this specific case are then followed by a caption directing viewers to a website to find out more about the story. Said website – long since offline today, but archived – is a superficial nonsense that adds zero value to the audience experience. At the same time, in context the caption heavily implies that viewers should head online to learn how the story ends. Audiences in 2012 were understandably incensed, but to be honest the entire controversy would be fixed by simply removing the caption. Horror audiences are well adjusted to a lack of closure.
Take that particular issue away, and The Devil Inside is simply a deeply ordinary horror movie. Certainly it is far from being the worst horror film ever made, but even so: after getting through all the good and mediocre ones, is it really worth spending time on the bad ones too?