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Non-Review Review: The Devil Inside

The Devil Inside is a cocktail of fascination, frustration and infuriation. Unfortunately it’s not a balanced one – though there’s just enough interesting ingredients to pique our curiosity, but the delivery is so slapdash and haphazard that these intriguing elements are swiftly brushed aside. The Devil Inside confuses provocative drama with shallow sensationalism, but the biggest flaw with the film is that – quite simply – it doesn’t work. I don’t mean that it doesn’t work as a film. The problem is more fundamental than that. I mean that it doesn’t work as a story.

No need to get bent out of shape...

I’m almost certain that every conversation about the film broaches the topic of the ending. I don’t want to spoil the film, but it is a very unsatisfying denouement. However, it exists as the culmination of narrative woes that have been percolating for the movie’s hour-and-a-half runtime. What is the movie about? Is it an inside look at the mechanics of exorcism? A meditation on the relationship between science and faith (mental health and spirituality? Is it a monster movie? Is it a possession film?

The movie seems to be about Isabella Rossi’s quest to figure out exactly what happened to her mother during a botched 1989 exorcism that left three clergy dead and her mother committed to an institution in Rome. From there, it sort of branches out into an interesting religious procedural, which is actually quite interesting of itself. However, the movie seems to quickly lose interest in the long-term possession of Rossi’s mother, and instead takes a sharp left turn to become another type of demonic story, which it seems to begin and then… gives up on. There’s no straight throughline. There’s no arc. There’s no purpose.

Mommy's very cross...

The movie raises a bunch of interesting questions. I’m not talking about the interesting moral and philosophical questions, which we’ll come to. I mean, basic logical plot-progression questions. How was Isabella’s mother possessed? Is it genetic? Can the demon be cast out of her? What does it want? How much does the Church know about this? How does it “transfer”? Why are there a choir of demons in this one woman? Unfortunately, it answers next to none of them, and it seems to contort like any number of the victims in order to avoid addressing these points. That makes it incredibly frustrating, because it broaches the topics and then jumps to the next horror movie convention, without engaging us.

More than the structure of the film, though, the actual movie-making technique seems noticeably weak. It’s a “found footage” film, but it falls into the usual problems… and then some. During an interesting lecture at the “Exorcism School”, the camera seems to change position during conversations so we can see the faces of the people talking. At other points, the movie explains that the crew (or the guy) set up multiple cameras beforehand, but here it seems like they stumbled into a lecture.

Fair pray to you...

The camera seems to gravitate around Fernanda Andrade as Isabella. To be entirely honest, there are worse things to focus on, but it immediately shatters the illusion that we are watching a documentary. The opening few minutes come with a crime scene video, a transcribed phone call and talking heads, but the rest of the film doesn’t seem interested in anybody except Isabella. More than that, though, everybody seems cool with the camera. If I were performing “back alley exorcisms” which look very much like reckless endangerment, I would not record them. If I had a family member locked in the basement, I probably wouldn’t want foreigners video-taping her.

Even the movie’s jump scares seem predictable. The movie opens with the text warning that the Vatican doesn’t record exorcisms. Based on the evidence contained herein, it’s probably because possessed people seem to keep charging at them and breaking them. It would be a very expensive profession. The movie adheres almost rigidly to convention, and the few true jumps come from unexpected sources, like a random dog. Unfortunately, everything else seems to follow the Hollywood exorcism playbook.

Everybody has their demons...

And this is where we hit some of the more interesting stuff that tends to get a bit confused in the mess. There is a serious exorcism movie to be made, exploring the Catholic Church’s habits and practices around that most controversial of ceremonies. I think that The Exorcism of Emily Rose probably came closest to dealing with the subject with maturity, but The Devil Inside has multiple interesting angles on it, but never really explores any other.

The idea of “Exorcism School” is fascinating, purely because the art and practice of exorcism is actually in decline – is it a mostly academic discipline at this stage? The Devil Inside touches on some interesting issues to do with the relationship between science and faith. After all, most historians agree that quite a few demonic possessions were simply cases of undiagnosed mental illness, creating an interesting central conflict there between the rational and irrational.

Ward off evil...

There’s something fascinating about the “science” of demonic possession, and there’s something strangely cool about seeing a bunch of priests using advanced medical techniques. “She’s clean!” one priest yells, like he’s auditioning for a role on CSI: Vatican. The movie also tackles, directly, the status of the Catholic Church and its tarnished reputation, which makes it seem – on the surface – quite edgy. Particularly in Ireland, I think there’s room for discourse on the practices and conduct of the Catholic Church, and whether the institution has the interests of its members at heart with various cover-ups and scandals.

Indeed, the movie runs rather quickly through clever high concepts, each of which could have been brilliant if handled with a bit more nuance and sophistication. In particular, I loved the idea of two rogue priests conducting exorcisms in cases that the Catholic Church wouldn’t handle. That sounds like perfect grindhouse fodder, like a darker and more sombre version of Ghost Busters. It’s interesting, because apparently such “rogue clergy” were quite common in 1970s America. I think there’s a movie to be made there.

Nun of that, now!

However, despite these interesting ideas, the movie makes a fatal miscalculation. It mistakes sensationalism for insight. While it might be fair to attack the Catholic Church as an organisation that has kept secrets in the past and exploited its influence, it seems hypocritical to attack its revisions to the exorcism code of conduct in 1999. Recognising that mental illness needs to be treated and that it should not be masked by superstition was a bold step forward, and it seems very shallow to attack the Church for one of its few genuinely humane attempts at modernisation.

It seems like pandering, an attempt to court an international audience feeling disillusioned with the Church, cynically branding the film as controversial (the film the Vatican doesn’t want you to see!) in order to bring in audiences who feel like they’ve lost touch. Don’t get me wrong, I think the debate needs to be had, and I think Catholic Ireland is fading slowly into history, but there’s something decidedly calculated about the way the movie addresses these issues, framing them without any thought or development, that makes me feel uneasy.

You can't just let them Rome around!

This bleeds through beyond the handling of the Catholic Church, into the way it treats its horror. The scares are conventional, but the film relies on crass shock tactics. The Exorcist used profanity quite well, shocking a nation unaccustomed to such things. Now it seems like demons must talk like sailors or Ray Winston in an East End gangster film. Menstrual blood provides a cheap gross out factor. In one sequence, the movie even threatens to break the one big rule in major American horror films (in a way that is incredibly obvious), but then wusses out at the last minute. (Or does it?)

I feel like I’m being a little harsh here. There are very good ideas at play within the film itself, but they aren’t ever given proper expression. There are nice moments that are effective, and which do tease the possibility of something we haven’t seen before. Indeed, I can’t recall a movie that offered an attempted exorcism in a moving car before, even if it does come off the rails towards the end of the scene. I think that’s precisely why the movie is so thoroughly frustrating. It’s not that it’s completely terrible, it’s that there is some interesting stuff here, but it’s just poorly handled.

The Devil Inside wrestles with its demons. Unfortunately, it doesn’t win.

3 Responses

  1. Reblogged this on sky's stalker! and commented:
    scary -_-

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