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The Devil Inside [Review]

The Devil Inside is a creepy, scary exorcism film that is undone by its own devices. Director William Brent Bell spends the better part of film’s run-time setting up and executing an entertaining and chilling look at a girl searching for her mother and the nature of her disorder and two priests who may be able to help through the rite of exorcism. Then, suddenly, Bell makes a critical, jarring mistake by ending the film, seemingly without resolution. It’s a bold move to not include the third act in a film, but it is one he chooses on purpose and with reason. However that decision also betrays the audience’s investment in the story and the characters. It’s a shame really, because without this controversial move, The Devil Inside is a successful, exciting and frightful film.

The Devil Inside is the story of two sets of individuals who come together to solve the mystery behind the incarceration and murderous acts of Maria Rossi (Suzan Crowley). The first group is comprised of two film makers, Isabella Rossi (Fernanda Andrade) and her camera man Michael (Ionut Grama). They travel to Rome, Italy to film their investigation into the Church’s burying the events surrounding Isabella’s mother, three murders and an exorcism. Classified as DID (dissociative identity disorder), Maria is hidden away in an institution. In Rome, Isabella and Michael meet two Exorcists who offer to help: Ben (Simon Quartermain), an ordained exorcist and David (Evan Helmuth) as Catholic priest. Together they attempt a rogue exorcism of the demons they believe inhabit Maria Rossi’s body; the events that follow forever change their lives.

Director William Brent Bell brings The Devil Inside to the screen blending the exorcism film genre with the Cinema Verite/Found Footage style, much like Daniel Stamm’s The Last Exorcism from 2010. Bell is able to embrace certain tropes successfully and avoid others altogether resulting in an interesting, effective thriller. At the root of the film is a young lady who is only looking to get to the truth about her mother. Around the edges are discussions about the Church, religious politics and cover ups. Ben and David go rogue in effort to help those who they feel the Church has abandoned. The ingredients are all there and are blended together to prime the audience for a series of visceral and frightening exorcisms film in the found footage point of view style.

The film avoids many cliches of possession films that have filled the screen since William Friedkin’s adaptation of William Blatty’s The Exorcist. There’s no levitation. There’s no spinning heads. There’s no vomited baths of green bile. The possessed in The Devil Inside remain very much like their normal selves (with minor make up effects) leaving the signatures of possession to the physical contortions that have been popular since The Exorcism of Emily Rose. Subtle, but no less shocking, the Jekyll and Hyde meets Daniel Browning Smith approach is visually unnerving and unsettling creating a believable impression of possession. The camera work, lighting and soundtrack all support the visual stimuli producing genuine screams and goose bumps.

The film owes a great deal of debt to the performances of Suzan Crowley as Maria Rossi and Bonnie Morgan as Rosalita. Maria Rossi is Isabella’s mother and the subject of Michael’s documentary. Rosalita is another woman suspect of being possessed and under the care of the rogue exorcists, Ben and David. Crowley’s presence is felt throughout the entire film, from the opening 911 call, to the first interview facing her daughter for the first time in nearly twenty years and, finally, during the rogue exorcism inside the sanitarium. She is scary, period: her expressions, her appearance with all the cuts and scars, and her voice – or, rather, voices. Crowley jumps effortlessly from accent to accent to inflection to tone. Her eyes pierce through the camera lens. Bonnie Morgan’s role is more physical requiring her to show of her expertise as a contortionist. It almost hurts just to see her dislocate her shoulder and bend in unimaginable ways. These two women are at the pulse of The Devil Inside.

It is impossible to review this movie without discussing the ending as it has such a damning effect on its entire execution and colors the film in a distasteful light. However, the film is not a total failure and has a lot going for it. The cast is strong on both sides of the line of possession and the story is simple enough, never trying to pack too much into its narrative. It does its best to keep it simple, stupid. It is the Exorcist equivalent of Paranormal Activity, more so than its closest cousin, The Last Exorcism. Boiled down, the film is about a group of investigators attempting to capture proof of a person possessed, each with their motivation in doing so. The film is also full of problems, the most biggest of which is lack of properly explained internal logic. The film relies on the idea that certain contrivances of possession be known in order to make the last third of the film work; the film attempts to injects that knowledge with just a few lines. For those who have seen dozens of exorcism films, this may be enough, but for most people it fails to set up a major plot device in continuing the conflict after the rag tag team of exorcists retreat to their Italian abode. And then there’s the most notable and most vocalized blunders – the ending. Again, much like The Last Exorcism before it and many other films of late such as Martha Marcy May Marlene, The Devil Inside ends before it actually ties up the story. This idea rarely works and it has never failed so poorly as it does with this film. Instead of being though provoking, it is merely frustrating.

If it were not for the ending, The Devil Inside would be a highly positive review with only minor concerns. The acting is natural and effective. The main characters are normal and as real as need be, almost to a fault, and the infected are exceptional, pulling their weight and providing the film its biggest scares. The cinema verite style is used appropriately and is able to set up a number of scene to make the most of its own constraints. The exorcism scenes are frightening, more so than many of the exorcism films of recent memory. The narrative somehow successfully lives within the stereotypical confines of the genre without having to rely on its most high profile cliches; it picks and choices what to use with care and purpose. However, the choices made by the film makers to wrap up the film as they did, while incredibly bold and purposely chosen, undermine their entire efforts. Still, the film sets out to do what it intends to do: scare the audience, provide an intimate p.o.v. display of exorcism, and wrap up the story of all four main characters in the story. But  it is incredibly difficult to overlook the fact that William Brent Bell succeeds in an extraordinary cinematic error – exorcising the third act.

-Doc Rotten

for horror fans

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