Jan 8, 2012
The Devil Inside
Or The Curse of The Blair Witch Project. Ever since the surprising success of that seminal film, everybody wants to make a cheap horror movie that makes a lot of money. It's a good strategy: you shoot a horror story on a shaky video camera and pretend it's for real. This saves the producers tons of money, but it also helps with the scares and the word of mouth. Paranormal Activity followed a similar model. Things go bump in the night: let's turn on a video camera in the dark and see what happens. It worked. Scared the hell out of millions -- made gazillions at the box office. The Devil Inside attempts to follow the same logic, but it has one fatal flaw: it is perhaps the most egregious example of waste of a really good premise because of utterly terrible writing.
The writers have a good hook: What if during the course of an exorcism the demon transfers to someone else? Awesome idea. Scary as hell. What they have no concept of is drama, structure, or storytelling. What they wrote conspires to undermine the premise from the first second onscreen. Their biggest mistake is to frame the story as an already finished documentary on a case of demonic possession. This bleeds the story from any suspense. Things have already been decided by the main character, Isabella Rossi, (Fernanda Andrade, a pretty zero), before the movie begins.
First scene, we hear a 911 call from a woman announcing a triple murder, with subtitles in case we miss it. Then we hear her say she did it. Then they cut to the police investigation and the videotaping of the crime scene, where they show and tell us what already happened. No one seems to have any reaction to the grisly murders or the religious paraphernalia in the house. Then we see Isabella, who again tells the story of how her mother committed these murders in the course of her own exorcism. Then she says the same thing again to some doctor. It's numbingly boring. Isabella seems to be borderline autistic; she barely registers any cogent thoughts or feelings about her mother. I blame the writers, whose script sounds like it was written on a napkin by cocky but lazy junior high students.
It gets worse. The mother was sent (it is never explained how, or by who) to a mental hospital in Rome. This also happens outside the movie. So Isabella hires a young videographer who seems to suffer from Parkinson's and she DRIVES around in Rome (I thought this was preposterous: an American driving in Rome without the slightest sign of panic). She signs up for an EXORCISM school, that seems to accept, according to Isabella's helpful voiceover, people from all walks of life.
At school, she meets two rogue priests who perform exorcisms without the Church's permission. The two young priests, who have the bearing and the moral authority of two Williamsburg slackers (Max Von Sydow, they're not), actually ask her to come witness an exorcism so she can see if her mom is crazy or possessed. Nobody ever stops her from doing anything. The movie is full of missed opportunities, holes the size of craters, schematic characters with either no conflict or stupid conflicts, and plot threads that are brought up to be forgotten, like for instance, the poor bedeviled mother.
Now, the saddest thing about this movie (besides the fact that it made $34.5 million this weekend) is that buried among the stretches of dead time and inane arguments, there are two or three very good moments. Writer-director William Brent Bell has a wonderful conception of how victims of possession look like, and how they suffer. No green goo and cheesy effects. The possessed are clearly people in torment, and their bodily torture is very realistic and scary. Suzan Crowley, the woman who plays Isabella's mother, is absolutely fantastic in her very thankless role. She is scary, creepy (with the aid of very well done voices), but she manages to be human and convincing and not ridiculously over the top (like say, Keira Knightley in A Dangerous Method). The scene where Isabella sees her mother for the first time in 20 years, as badly written as it is, made the audience stop fidgeting, texting, and talking amongst themselves, and I believe it is entirely because of this actress' incredible performance. A scene where a young woman gets exorcised is a long stretch of agony, but very well done, with the aid of an actress who must be a contortionist. (It's always women who get possessed by demons. Why?) The priests may look like video store clerks but the lack of pomposity and artifice in the exorcisms is effective and refreshing.
The use of video camera effects was a little tiresome, but the use of special effects was judicious and very well applied. The scariest jump in the film is simply a guy who is sitting on a chair and then he's not. Great creepy details, like the eye of Isabella's mother looking at us through the monitor, when she is clearly looking at the ceiling. There is an audacious scene at a baby's baptism that is truly shocking. These things made the audience look back from whatever it was they were doing on the long stretches of pointless stuff not happening.
Credit must also be given to cinematographer Gonzalo Amat (full disclosure: he is a dear friend), who while, too generous by far with the camera's shakiness, he also creates some creepy, interesting images with very cool framing, and milks the lo-fi quality of video to the utmost benefit of the scary scenes.
I would love producers to declare a moratorium on the cheap video look, but to judge from opening weekend box office, we are surely cursed with more of the same for eternity. I hope that when they do the inevitable sequel, they write a better script and apologize to paying audiences for probably one of the worst endings ever to appear on a movie screen.
The Saturday night New York audience I saw the movie with, actually loudly booed the ending. And these were not fans of Ingmar Bergman. People were truly pissed off. I heard a girl say "these writers suck". Perhaps the filmmakers and producers are laughing all the way to the bank, but I would not be surprised if bad word of mouth lowers the numbers next week. On top of shoddy, padded writing, and the lack of a conclusion, an end title urges us to find out "the truth" at some website.
This is getting old.