The exorcist gets attacked. There are emotional attacks, and psychological attacks, and physical attacks—I can’t say that I’ve been physically attacked. My celibacy gets attacked a lot.
—Thomas, the reluctant exorcist
“I wonder how seriously they take exorcism school,” says Isabella Torelli (Fernanda Andrade). “I hope it’s not a joke.” She’s actually on her way to exorcism school when she wonders, in a car in Rome. Which means, since she’s come from the US, that she’s traveled quite a distance without knowing quite where she’s headed.
You, however, know exactly where you’re headed. You know because The Devil Inside is yet another movie about exorcisms. In this case, Isabella has arrived in Rome in 2009 because her mother is incarcerated here, following the murders she committed back in 1989. Isabella, who was about eight years old at the time, doesn’t remember much about Maria (Suzan Crowley). She knew, she says now, that “something was different.” But as a child, she couldn’t know what you already know, because you’ve already seen the 1989 police crime scene video: the bloody bodies of a nun and two priests who were trying to exorcise the devil out of Maria.
This video, which includes footage of Maria being led from the house in handcuffs, footage that ends, so odiously, on a freeze frame of Maria gazing directly into the camera as she sits in the back of the police cruiser, lets you know that Isabella is right to suspect that her mother isn’t just “insane.” It also helps you believe, along with Isabella, that Maria’s incarceration in an Italian mental hospital for 20 years is the result of a faulty diagnosis, whether intentional or not. The most obvious effect of that freeze frame is that it makes you feel smarter than anyone else in The Devil Inside. All of which means that—just 10 minutes into the film—your interest in what happens next is on the decline.
Take Isabella’s trip to Rome. She’s bringing along a documentary filmmaker, Michael (Ionet Grama), in order to explain the existence of the supposedly found footage from 2009 that, along with the 2009 cops’ footage and some 1989 home movies, comprises the movie. Michael appears only occasionally, in confessionals indicating his cynicism regarding the whole affair. Mostly, he’s Isabella’s off-screen accomplice, encouraging her not to look at the camera or an occasional arm setting up one camera while another is already rolling.
Michael also apparently leaves cameras with Isabella and her newfound friends in Rome, a couple of students in that exorcism class she attends at the film’s start. It turns out that ordained priest and physician David (Evan Helmuth) and trained exorcist Ben (Simon Quarterman) are running underground exorcisms for people turned down by Vatican authorities because, well, because the movie needs them to do so (this because the 1999 Vatican “exorcism rules” banned media at official rituals). Ben and David believe they need to record what happens, in order to prove both clients’ possessions and their successful exorcisms: they’ve been bringing along their own camera to document pupil dilations and blood pressure readings. Michael’s extra angles seem like a good idea when they invite Isabella along to witness a real exorcism—which, they claim, will teach her more about what she wants to know than three months in exorcism class.
Sadly, this adventure—in a basement in Rome, where a distraught woman (Maude Bonanni) has left her possessed niece Rosa within easy reach of saws and garden tools—doesn’t teach you much. Instead, it reprises the body contortions, cracking bones, and ugly invectives you’ve seen in other exorcism movies. It does make you wonder though, when David and Ben look worried at Rosa’s taunts concerning their own backgrounds: haven’t they run into exactly this demonic tactic on previous outings?
It may be that Ben and David’s reactions will help you feel worried too. More likely, it will remind you that The Devil Inside has nothing new to offer to the genre, which has shape-shifted considerably from William Friedkin’s 1973 bar-setter, now mired pretty much incessantly in the low-rent, low-expectations found footage subset. The appeal of this approach is plain enough: effects are cheap, jump scares are plentiful, and inexplicable storylines are easy. That is, the primary trick in these films—from the Paranormal Activity franchise to The Last Exorcism and… wait for it… the reportedly upcoming Last Exorcism 2—is that narrative or motivational mysteries (or holes) can remain just that.
In The Devil Inside, the mysteries are legion. Not only are David and Ben’s experiences unspecified (though each has “done something” the devil can exploit), but Isabella’s ignorance is profound—even for a movie that depends on same. This sets her up for that most likely of exorcism movie shortcuts, the “transference” of possession from one generation to another, and also locates her squarely in the genre’s most typical position for a girl: she’s a born victim.
As Isabella speaks again and again to the camera—whether in league with Michael or in mid-hysteria or in her own private bouts of existential distrust recorded on tape (“I’d like to take this fucking camera and turn it around and stick it in Michael’s face!”)—she repeats the tropes you know too well. She reminds you that the found-footage exorcism movies have taken up the place once held by stalker movies (and torture-porn movies), as inexpensive gateway projects for up and coming makers, artists with good ideas and paltry budgets, clever compositions and no stars.
But listening to Isabella, so dopey and so banal, you might recognize something else, that the comparisons between those 1970s flicks and these new January-dump movies stop there. For even if The Devil Inside shows intelligence about framing and cutting, it’s relentlessly thickheaded about its own politics or the culture it reflects. David notes the divide between science and religion and Ben sees media as a means to reveal truth. Maria frightens her daughter and Michael learns a lesson. The Devil Inside only tells you what you already know.