In theory, the fundamental effectiveness of horror should spring from a willful dissonance between a sense of normalcy and the discord of the story’s events…but what happens when that sense of discord itself becomes all too familiar? Among the many problems of “The Devil Inside” is a slavish two-fold adherence to the routine of modern horror films – specifically, the tropes of the demonic-possession genre and those of the faux-documentary approach. When director William Brent Bell and co-writer Matthew Peterman, the brains behind the equally turgid “Stay Alive,” aren’t evoking every single exorcism movie this side of, well, “The Exorcist,” they’re dutifully aping the decade-old wave of imitation spawned by the success of “The Blair Witch Project” and fueled more recently by the “Paranormal Activity” franchise.
The result isn’t chilling so much as reheated. This is the type of film that assures viewers upfront that the oft-mentioned, little-seen powers of the Vatican neither endorsed what you are about to see, nor have they aided in its completion. How their surveillance footage found its way into this anonymously edited, somehow scored and relatively finished end result will only remain a mystery, but hey: hokum sells. What is explained is that, in 2009, Isabella Rossi (Fernanda Andrade, looking a lot like Shannyn Sossamon) traveled to Rome to see her mother, Maria (Suzan Crowley, looking a lot like Susan Sarandon), in an effort to ascertain whether or not Mommy Dearest killed three clergymen as they attempted an exorcism two decades earlier.
It isn’t long before Isabella and documentarian Michael (Ionut Grama) are shadowing young priests Ben (Simon Quarterman) and David (Evan Helmuth) as they carry out unauthorized exorcisms and dole out unrelenting exposition, and as such, the plot-ordained ritual of these sequences only begets a different kind of ritual. They and we are treated to the usual parade of strange voices, pointed vulgarities, ironic song choices, casual wall-scaling, repeated body contortion and good old-fashioned menstrual outbursts, and the film is no scarier for all its tried-and-true tactics. Worse yet are the goofy justifications for “pupil cams,” a fully rigged rental car and seemingly unprompted character testimonials which suggest a wayward episode of “The Real World: Vatican City” more than anything else.
But even stripped of its fleetingly novel handheld tactics, “The Devil Inside” would still remain a pervasively stale supernatural thriller given to overwrought performances (to be fair, Crowley gives good anguish for her part), heavy-handed foreshadowing, laughably handy settings for demonic mayhem (“you’ll never guess who we moved down to the basement…”) and a scarcely suggested ambiguity between a character’s actual capacity for possession and their reasonable potential for mental illness. The alleged expertise of our leads simply falls by the wayside in the face of imminent peril, the most effective jolt comes courtesy of a particularly loud dog (of all the shameless things), and frankly, the film’s final moments rank among the most bewildering and insulting that we’ve seen in quite some time.
Sharing a similar union of religious reckoning and first-person technique, 2010’s “The Last Exorcism” may have been concerned in part with the nature of con games, but after an abruptly-capped 80 minutes, one can’t be blamed for feeling that “The Devil Inside” is ultimately more of a swindle, a cautionary tale of what can happen when the once-terrifying becomes terrifyingly dull. [D]