(by Dustin Putman
When 2009's supernatural found-footage pic "Paranormal Activity" took the box-office by storm, earning over $100-million based largely on word-of-mouth and savvy grassroots promotion against a cost of less than $100,000, Insurge—a micro-budget arm of Paramount Pictures—was promptly born. The idea is really quite logical, dedicating less than a million dollars per film and then releasing them wide. Even with modest marketing costs, they're bound to turn a tidy profit. What they won't do is recreate the same jumpy, passionate furor or even a fraction of the gross of "Paranormal Activity" if they're as mind-bogglingly asinine and dopey as "The Devil Inside" is. If this is the best Paramount could come up with, they might have saved themselves the embarrassment by starting over from scratch. Article continues below
On October 30, 1989, Maria Rossi (Suzan Crowley) dialed 911 to report that she'd just murdered three people in her home. The victims turned out to be members of the clergy, gathered to perform an exorcism on her. Found not guilty by reason on insanity, Maria was sentenced to Centrino Mental Hospital in Italy, where she has remained for twenty years. With no one able to give a concrete answer as to whether she was truly possessed or simply crazy, Maria's estranged 26-year-old daughter Isabella (Fernanda Andrade) has hired documentary filmmaker Michael Schaeffer (Ionet Grama) to follow her to Rome as she attempts to get to the bottom of her mother's ailments. Enlisting the aid of ordained priest David Keane (Evan Helmuth) and trained exorcist Ben Rawlings (Simon Quarterman), Isabella is about to come face to face with a powerful evil beyond her comprehension.
Demonic possession flicks have grown in popularity in recent years, and there's no way to avoid comparing them to the granddaddy of the subgenre, 1973's "The Exorcist." For every genuinely chilling entry that talks thoughtfully about faith and psychology in the midst of scares like 2005's "The Exorcism of Emily Rose," there are countless overwrought knock-offs of the William Friedkin classic that jump the proverbial shark like 2011's "The Rite." In between those two are passingly effective, if slightly uneven, works like 2010's faux-documentary "The Last Exorcism," and stuffed way down beneath the rickety floorboards close to the graveyard of cinematic hell itself is "The Devil Inside." In retrospect, warning signals should have sounded with the hiring of writer-director William Brent Bell and co-penner Matthew Peterman, the team behind 2006's junky, understandably forgotten PG-13 slasher movie "Stay Alive." In the five years since, they presumably have not learned a thing. Beyond the set-up of the premise and the initial dread-drenched reuniting between mother and daughter in the hospital, Bell and Peterman have no idea where to go with the story and seem to start tossing random ideas—bad ones—frivolously at the screen. It doesn't add up to fun, frights or heady provocations, but to increasingly raised eyebrows and furious head-shaking.
Artistry of any kind is all but wholly absent from the proceedings. A poor-man's try at capturing a form of reality within fiction, the film is no "Paranormal Activity," or "The Blair Witch Project," or "Cloverfield," or "[REC]." With the exception of Suzan Crowley's wickedly plausible, ominously dedicated turn as the possessed Maria Rossi, performances are self-aware just enough to break the spell that what we are watching is true. This in and of itself is a major no-no in the world of mockumentaries, but it's small potatoes next to the idiocy of the writing on display. The exorcism scenes aren't remotely unsettling, but they do verge on spoofing "The Exorcist," what with Maria's colorful language, smoker's voice, and propensity for telling people which body part they can stick their needles into. When Satan—or a trusty helper, as it never does clarify—obviously transfers into priest David's body, causing him to nearly drown a baby during its baptism, Isabella laughably reasons, "He's been under a lot of stress lately." Okay, then.
"The Devil Inside" ratchets the stupid, nonsensical stakes right near the end, but lacks an understanding of momentum or even a signal that the third act has gotten underway. Bereft of thematic consequence and having solved nothing, when the film abruptly cuts to black and, no kidding, provides the URL for a website to learn more about the case, it's enough to make one want to break into the projector's booth and burn the celluloid. If it's a digital print and destruction is out of the question, the next best option would be to track director William Brent Bell down and shake him while demanding he explain himself. The more the mind ponders "The Devil Inside," the more cheap, pointless and cockamamie it reveals itself to be. Horror fans hoping to start 2012 with a bang are about to be in for a very rude awakening.