Thursday, January 26, 2012

Culture Shock 01.26.12: You're better off not running with 'The Devil Inside'

As a movie, "The Devil Inside" is a failure. As a horror movie, it's a scare-free bore. But as a test of the audience's willingness to put up with being jerked around for an hour and a half, "The Devil Inside" is a resounding success.

Never before have I attended a movie after which every single audience member made his displeasure known with some sort of verbal outburst, some of which I cannot repeat here. (Must think of the children.) I'd heard stories of audiences being so angry with "The Devil Inside" they threw popcorn at the screen — which means they were really mad, 'cause theater popcorn ain't cheap. That didn't happen at the screening I attended, which is a shame. That would have been entertaining.

As I recall, my own response at the time was something like, "That wasn't very good, now was it?"

That's an understatement. "The Devil Inside" will make you angry. Any hope I'd had that it would be "so bad it's good" faded in the first 20 minutes. This is a film that combines two overused horror tropes — exorcism and "found footage" — and makes something less than the sum of the parts. There's even a dash of "Da Vinci Code"-style Vatican conspiracy paranoia thrown in for bad measure. I almost feel bad for reviewing this movie. It's like drowning a puppy because it's too dumb not to poop on the rug.

The movie starts in the 1980s, with 911 recordings and police video taken from the scene of a triple homicide. The slaughter, it turns out, was committed by a woman (played by the aptly named Suzan Crowley, in the film's only credible role) who may or may not be possessed by the devil. (Go ahead. Guess.) Flash forward to the present day, and the woman is, for reasons that vaguely make sense only if you assume a vast Vatican conspiracy rules the world, incarcerated in an asylum next door to the Vatican in Rome.

Her now adult daughter Isabella (Fernanda Andrade) is making a documentary about Mom and exorcisms. Assisting her is a filmmaker (Ionut Grama) whose purpose is to hold the camera and be a jerk. (In these movies, the guy holding the camera is always a jerk.) During her quest, Isabella sits in on — and films! — an exorcism class. Turns out, Vatican-authorized exorcisms are really boring, and, as it happens, two rogue priests whom Isabella meets agree. The priests (Simon Quarterman and Evan Helmuth) have been performing unauthorized exorcisms on the side because the church is too busy covering up demonic possession to be of any help. Naturally, the priests decide to tag along for a fateful meeting with Isabella's mom.

After tricking the world's dumbest hospital staff into leaving them alone in an examination room with Isabella's mom, our four heroes confirm their worst suspicion: Mom is possessed not by one demon but by five. If you can add, you can figure out the rest.

That's the problem. There is nothing the least bit surprising about "The Devil Inside." Even the attempted scares are telegraphed well in advance. And the ending manages to be even less satisfying than anything in the "Paranormal Activity" franchise. It's no wonder people want to throw things afterward.

Writer/director William Brent Bell and co-writer Matthew Peterman have reached the rock bottom of the found footage genre. The whole contrived exercise seems like an excuse to take a trip to Rome — and then it rained the entire time.

Maybe they were just taking their disappointment out on the audience.

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