Friday, April 4, 2014

The Devil Inside: A Faustian Bargain

The business of film - like the business of any art - is basically fucked up. It’s the intersection of creative impulse and calculated commerce, where on the one hand you have what you hope are expressions of a particular aesthetic sensibility and worldview, and on the other all of the positioning, marketing, and investment decisions used to justify the underwriting of the creative endeavor. The thesis is bound up inextricably with its antithesis. Like it or not, art gets sold to us, in every sense of the word, and horror film often provides some of the worst examples of this in action. What other genre so nakedly reproduces successful formulae, in the forms of sequels, “reboots” or iterations on a particular style of film? Art and commerce are, on average, wildly out of balance in horror. At least, that’s how I see it. And it affects my opinions about the films in which I choose to invest my time.

Case in point: The Devil Inside.

I didn’t watch this for a very long time, because I was suspicious of its origins as a "micro-budget franchise starter", as ugly and cynical a phrase as I can imagine. You can hear the marketing gears turning, bland men in conference rooms mistaking demographic projections for art. That it is a found-footage demonic-possession movie didn't help, either - two genres ripe for overexposure and cliché, easy to do badly. Besides, The Last Exorcism already exists and slam-dunked the fuck out of that story, how good could this be? To add insult to injury, it got out pretty quickly that the movie ends with a title card that basically says "for more on this story, go to this website", where the website is just links to a bunch of YouTube videos of additional footage. It's a shoddy, ham-handed attempt at the kind of cross-medium marketing that worked so well for The Blair Witch Project. Lots of money men, fumbling to create a hit out of the sort of reasoning that misses the point entirely.

So I’m going to be honest - I was very skeptical going into this. But I am being honest when I say that I was pleasantly surprised by this film. I don't know that it has the textual richness of The Last Exorcism, but it doesn't need it. It's a well-crafted, nicely understated story that builds up little details to an end that doesn't at all need the gimmicky "go here to find out more" hook at the end and works just fine without it.

The film opens with a title card that basically says that the Catholic Church doesn't officially recognize the performance of exorcisms, and did not assist in the making of this film. It's a nice touch, because it establishes the documentary nature of the film without actually lying - of course they didn't help, it's a work of fiction. But it's enough to set the ground rules for the nature of the footage that we're going to see (important for a found-footage film to work) and it doesn't violate those rules (critical for a found-footage film to work), so the artificiality of the conceit is quickly forgotten in favor of the story.

The story opens with a 911 call played over a black screen, broken only by a transcription of what’s being said. A woman is calling to report the death of three people, confessing that she killed them before disconnecting the call. Our view shifts to police footage of the crime scene, appropriately banal and professional in its treatment of death - no corny, melodramatic cop lines, just police noting what they see and dispassionately recording the scene. This footage transitions neatly into footage of a news report that a woman named Maria Rossi was arrested at the scene of a horrible multiple murder.

Flash forward several years later to a professionally-produced talking-head shot of a young woman named Isabella Rossi - Maria’s daughter. Her mother was found not guilty by reason of insanity, and has been hospitalized ever since Isabella was a young girl. Some things about the case have always bothered Isabella - first, it’s a hell of a thing to grow up knowing your mother may have murdered three people. Second, the facts of the case always struck her as a little odd - the three people murdered were members of the Catholic clergy, the rumor was that the murder took place during an attempted exorcism. But nope, it’s not a case of demonic possession. Officially, the church says, possession isn’t an actual phenomenon, and they don’t do exorcisms.

So why, after the murders, was Maria Rossi - a citizen of the United States - remanded to a hospital in Rome?

The remainder of the movie is Maria and her filmmaker friend Michael traveling to Rome to find out just what exactly the deal is. It’s presented sensibly - she’s a grown woman who wants to make peace with a troubling past, she’s a daughter who wants to advocate for her mother, and it’s tough to live a life dogged by mutterings about demonic possession. In Rome, she hooks up with two priests attending a class on exorcism - the Vatican doesn’t perform them, but priests are free to learn about them as a theoretical exercise - and finds out that they’re performing exorcisms on the sly, in defiance of doctrine. They see it as doing the Lord’s work even if current politics won’t let them do it openly. Needless to say, Isabella finds out very quickly that yes, exorcisms occur, and demonic possession may really be a thing. She gets the priests in to see her mother, and well, things do not go well.

I don’t want to say any more than that because one thing this film does really well is that it doesn’t traffic in the obvious. Well, in the broad strokes it does. The story beats themselves aren't a huge surprise - the situation is established (what happened to Mom all those years ago), we meet our protagonists (the daughter, the cameraman, and rogue priests doing exorcisms outside of church oversight), and then the other shoe drops (yes it's a demon, and it's way more powerful than anyone expected). These are not surprises. But they're executed well, and apart from a couple of cheap startles, they don't always play out in the most obvious ways. Where this film does its best work is in the details. This film is not afraid to let things happen in the background or barely in frame, it’s not afraid to hint at things and let them go unexplained, and it’s not afraid to let something horrible just sort of sit there on screen without shoving our faces in it. While things are happening in the foreground, it’s building up an a quiet, careful internal logic that tells the story without being obvious about it. It even handles the omnipresent-cameraman tack well - it's a documentary, so of course there are resources to capture as much footage as possible, and things aren't always framed perfectly or captured on-camera at all. It stretches plausibility a couple of times, but not for too far or for too long.

As odd as it sounds, I think my biggest criticism of The Devil Inside is that it's almost too competent, but I recognize that that criticism is based to a great degree in my reluctance to engage with this movie. For a good chunk of the movie, it was a lot easier for me to admire its construction than to really immerse myself in the story. I was probably waiting for it to suck or pull a wrong move because I didn’t want to appreciate something with such a nakedly commercial provenance, but it wasn't really until the third act that I stopped thinking to myself "nicely done, filmmakers" and started going "oh shit." But that’s entirely on me. The climax of the film builds tension and a sense of headlong rushing from bad to worse really nicely, so that by the end even little ol’ cynical me was wondering what the hell was going to happen next. It really doesn't need that terrible “for the rest of the story” title card at the end - the story has been told. There's an obvious sequel hook built in (this is a micro-budget franchise-starter, after all). but it doesn't feel as artificially established as I was afraid it would. You could tell another story about these people, and though I suspect it wouldn’t have the same power (because sequels almost never do), it wouldn’t be as ridiculous a stretch of narrative as it is in the Saw films or as ham-handed a way to build a franchise as the end of Sinister. It’s a skillfully-made, nicely creepy take on a type of movie that could be half-assed and still return a profit, and I’m sort of bummed that all of this money shit polluted how I saw it and pollutes how movies like this gets made.

IMDB entry
Purchase from Amazon
Available on Amazon Instant Video
Available on Netflix

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