Review: 'The Devil Inside' is a disappointing burn and not scary
"The Devil Inside" is an insidious kind of terrible movie, a movie that is simply low-grade bad for most of its thankfully brief running time before offering up an ending so openly contemptuous of the audience as to feel like a prank. Short version of this review: nope. Don't see it.
If you require more than that, then I'll be happy to share. I was invited to see the film at a screening tonight that Paramount held in downtown Los Angeles, and I was all set to go before I got invited to something else, something I'll write about tomorrow. Because that was at the same time, I decided to do that and then just pay for a midnight show of "The Devil inside" somewhere in Los Angeles. The other screening was on the Fox lot, so I considered staying there at the Century City AMC theater. They had an 11:45 screening of the film listed. Instead, because we got out of the other film and in our cars by 10:30, I decided to drive back to the Valley to see the movie near my house at the Woodland Hills Promenade 16. They had an 11:30 listed. I made the drive in time, and at 11:10, stepped up to buy my ticket and got told that the film was sold out.
I was so surprised that I think I stood there for a minute staring at the girl behind the window like she'd just called me a name. I still had time to try to find another screening, so I checked my phone, saw that there was a theater at Coldwater and Victory, right in the heart of the Valley, where there was a 12:01 show.
In the car, on the 101, all the way to Coldwater and then straight up. No traffic. The theater is a madhouse when I arrive at 11:30. People everywhere. And there was a definite demographic being served, too. I was the 1% tonight. Pretty much every other patron I saw in the eventually-sold-out auditorium tonight was Los Angeles Latino, and if nothing else, at least I saw the movie with a crowd that came ready to enjoy it.
I had to wait in line for everything at the theater, and so I had time to listen to the people around me. They were really excited about the film, and the trailer had evidently been a big hit with all of them. I thought the trailer was strong and effective when I saw it, and I walked in tonight hoping for good things. When you're in a room full of people who just paid to see something that they reeeeeeally want to like, it's contagious. The crowd was with the film at the beginning, and they stayed with it for a long time.
The movie, told in mockumentary form, spends a few title cards talking solemnly about how the Catholic Church did not cooperate with this movie, and they do not allow the filming of exorcisms, and this is all COMPLETELY TRUE.
And then we're at a crime scene, watching crime scene walkthrough footage that is the aftermath of an exorcism gone wrong. It's gruesome, presented in simple matter of fact language and presentation. If there's one thing "The Devil Inside" gets right, it is the recreation of each of the different media elements being used in the film. Old VHS looks like old VHS. The texture of the film is right.
Which is sort of like saying "The movie's in focus and there's no excessive fart noises on the soundtrack." Congratulations on a sort of base-line competence, I suppose, because as a narrative, the film is one long sustained blue-balled cheat. Doesn't work. Doesn't really deal with issues of faith or character along the way. Tries to build a few shocking sequences, but even those have a sort of benign familiarity to them. It's hard to get the sort of basic imagery of exorcism horror wrong, since the standard has been so clearly set. And while there are a few visual twists and tweaks that are interesting, they're following the Friedkin template closely enough that the impact is muted. They don't really contribute anything to the genre, or up the game in any significant way, or execute the familiar in a way that makes it feel fresh or urgent.
I had to look up writer/director William Brent Bell, and while I've never seen his first film "Sparkle and Charm," I have seen his second film, "Stay Alive." He co-wrote that one with Matthew Peterman, who is also his co-writer for "The Devil Inside," and they're two for two in my book. I really only barely remember "Stay Alive," a "evil video game killing people in real life" movie that was most notable upon release for the casting of Frankie Muniz. It did not stick, and more than any details of the film, I remember my general annoyance sitting through it. That same feeling set in about 2/3 of the way into "The Devil Inside," but to be fair, much of the audience was still quiet, focused, waiting to see where the film was going.
It is a cheat, though, and the way the film ditches anything it may have remotely tried to build to over the running 80 or so minutes that comes before the abrupt ending is just a cop-out. The film doesn't end. It reaches an arbitrary point and then does one "shocking" thing and then offers up an website address if you'd like to know more. I will never, not for any reason, bother entering that website address in my own browser, and I genuinely couldn't tell you what it was, because there was no way that movie was a persuasive challenge for me to go follow this story and these characters into other media.
Fernanda Andrade, Simon Quarterman, Evan Helmuth, and Ionut Grama are the primary cast here, with Suzan Crowley and Bonnie Morgan showing up as the the most overtly possessed characters in the film, getting the majority of the "big" moments. I didn't buy the documentary premise or the "filmmaker" character, I didn't buy the main girl's journey to learn about her mother, and I didn't buy the rogue exorcists she meets in Rome. It's not even about quality of performance… I just didn't buy the premise or who they were playing. It left me cold, and I kept waiting for something to change my mind, for someone to do something surprising. But each character plays out as one-note as they begin, and they are arbitrary place-holders as we work our way through a checklist of moments you should probably have in an exorcism movie.
Part of my problem with this sub-genre of horror is that no one has said anything new with one of these movies since "The Exorcist." Not really. Nobody's made "the other great exorcism movie." There are a handful of decent ones. "Emily Rose" and "The Last Exorcism" were both decent. But nobody's ever even remotely dented the iconographic power of what was done 40 years ago, and that suggests to me that there just isn't much juice in the premise. Every time I think that zombies or vampires or werewolves are totally finished, someone finds some way to do something that is undeniable and clever and gives a kick to the archetype. Not so with these movies, and "The Devil Inside" is just boring, more than any other particular sin it might commit.
Except for that ending. Seriously. Shameless.
"The Devil Inside" begins a very quick gallop towards home video at theaters everywhere starting today, and I expect Twitter to strip the bones clean off the movie by 10:30 Friday night. Word of mouth will be savage. When the director's credit came up in the theater I was in tonight, people began to boo. Many people. Spontaneously. I read about this happening in other theaters. That's not a good sign. It takes a lot to get a paying audience to boo a film. And yet it's happened in more than one place tonight.
The guy sitting in front of me with his date commented that he felt like a "dumbshit" for paying to see the film, and that he would love to get his money back. Another guy on the stairs on the way out told his friend "there is not enough weed for that movie, man," and outside, a girl yelled very loudly about a foot from my ear, to a friend on the other side of the parking lot, "OMYGODHOWMUCHDIDTHATSUCK?!"
I have been vocal in my defense of the "Paranormal Activity" films and the way they use their narrative device as a tool in how the films scare you. I think I'm pretty vocal when I see a horror film try something or reach for something. I love the genre, and I think I'm generally pretty encouraging towards horror films. But this one is just a burn, and I feel like this is a moment where I owe it to you as a reader to tell you that you will most likely feel cheated by this one, that disappointment seems to be a safe bet.
Proceed as you will. And better luck next time for Paramount's indie genre arm InSurge.