Horror bows to the whimsy of popular tastes perhaps more than any other film genre. Tobe Hooper’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) begat the slasher films of the ‘70s and ‘80s. Wes Craven’s Scream (1996) reinvigorated the meat-on-the-hoof teen slaughter flicks of the late ‘90s. Gore Verbinski’s The Ring (2002) brought on the deluge of Japanese horror remakes here in the States. Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later… (2002) revived zombies and James Wan’s Saw unfortunately brought the onslaught of torture porn. Now, years after The Blair Witch Project (1999), and with the barrels of money the Paranormal Activity films have made, the “shaky cam” found-footage/fake documentary horror is all the rage.
What’s curious about the shaky-cam phenomenon is that it’s not just limited to the horror aesthetic—we’ve seen it creep into sci-fi and teen comedies, for instance—and ultimately it serves to do little more than keep budgets down, cover up the lack of good scriptwriting with a flood of exposition, and imitate “realism” in the most simplistic of ways. With few exceptions—last year’s TrollHunter for instance—most films that fit this description have been cinematically trivial. William Brent Bell’s The Devil Inside, which tells the story of Isabella (TV actress Fernanda Andrade) and her murderous, possibly possessed mother (Suzan Crowley) is not, however, one of the few exceptions. The whole thing is told via footage gathered—for some unknown reason—by a documentarian who doubles as a terrible cameraman (Ionut Grama).
While it’s obvious that none of this is real, the film goes to lengths keeping a straight face right up to its finale (more on that in a minute)—even pointing out at the beginning that the Vatican had no hand in the making of the film. Pointing out the Catholic Church’s lack of involvement as a means of selling the shocking and horrific content becomes none too impressive once you realize the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (the modern day National Legion of Decency) recently gave the Glee concert movie the dreaded “O” rating for being morally offensive—basically condemning it in the eyes of the church. Sort of takes the teeth out of your scary-movie cred, doesn’t it?
Nevertheless, The Devil Inside keeps up all the appearances of a found-footage horror flick. There’s an onslaught of obnoxious, quivering camerawork as Isabella attempts to learn the truth about her mother with the help of a couple of rogue exorcists, David (Evan Helmuth, Fever Pitch) and Ben (Simon Quarterman), who are doing their work without the permission of the church. While some of their exorcism stuff can be creepy (like the contorted body of one of the possessed, and aspects of one character’s eventual demise), it too often devolves into bits and pieces lifted from the Exorcist films. A demonic Linda Blair spouting obscenities might’ve been shocking in 1973, but almost 40 years later, the foul-mouthed salvos of the possessed are old hat—and more amusing than shocking. Plus, the “realistic” approach that the film insists upon becomes confusing. Why are our English-speaking priests baptizing Italian children in English? And if our exorcists are so concerned with jail or excommunication for going behind the church’s back, why let someone document their every action on video?
But the “authenticity” the filmmakers are shooting for really ruins the movie when it comes to its climax, cutting to a black screen directing viewers to a website for more information on “the case.” Even overlooking the utter contempt this shows towards the audience, the site is purely a viral promotion, and does nothing more than show clips from the film you’ve already seen. For many, this will ruin the entire film; for me, it’s just one more negligible moment in an already forgettable horror film. Rated R for disturbing violent content and grisly images, and for language, including some sexual references.