Just the other day I watched an episode of Yellowstone, a neo-western tv-series. Such offerings usually pass me by, because I’m passionately dedicated to movies instead and there’s only so much I can take. But Yellowstone is something I can’t pass up because I’m a fan of that particular genre and I find Taylor Sheridan a gifted screenwriter. This episode contained a lengthy scene involving a group of cowboys playing Hold ‘Em poker in their bunkhouse. There was a lot of bantering going back and forth, expletives flying across the table and verbal frolicking with quick repartees. And I felt like I was sitting in there with them while watching it. It was immersive.
Found footage movies basically work the same way. As with a bunch of cowboys playing a card game, the plot can be simple. Some examples off the top of my head: a group of people going into the woods documenting a local legend, see The Blair Witch Project. A team investigating the disappearance of a farmer’s son, see Skinwalker Ranch. A documentary crew exploring the Parisian Catacombs, see As Above, So Below. A reporter doing a feature on firefighters and gets quarantined, see [*REC]. Or just a couple in their home where weird things happen, see Paranormal Activity.
The Devil Inside is one such movie. Directed and co-written with Matthew Peterman (Stay Alive, Wer) by William Brent Bell (Stay Alive, Wer, The Boy), it follows the fortunes of Isabella Rossi (Fernanda Andrade, NeXt) as she documents and investigates, joined by her cameraman Michael (Ionut Grama, The Doorman), what happened to her mother Maria (Suzan Crowley, Driving Lessons, Wild About Harry). Her mother brutally slaughtered three people 20 years ago, got subsequently declared insane, and is now institutionalized in Rome nearby the Vatican and an exorcism academy.
Isabella lives in L.A. so off to Rome she goes with Michael, where she attends the academy and meets up with exorcist apprentices Ben Rawlings (Simon Quarterman, Wer, Separation) and David Keane (Evan Helmuth, Ready Or Not, Jobs), who are clandestine – as in unratified by the church – exorcists themselves. They agree to let her and Michael tag along to get a deeper understanding of what demonic possession entails, and whether or not Maria is in fact possessed. And I’m not giving anything away that cannot already be deduced from the movie poster by divulging that this eventually turns out to be the case.
The Devil Inside received loads of flak from critics back when it came out. Particularly the abrupt and open ending was maligned as deeply unsatisfying. And its writing was seen as sloppy at best, leaving many gaping inconsistencies throughout the movie. It’s worth noting here that the found footage boom, triggered by Paranormal Activity, was already in steep decline at the time. Movie production companies, never shy to make a buck, had flooded the marketplace in their efforts to replicate PA’s commercial success, making found footage movies on a shoestring that might return their budgets a hundred times over.
The box office was way more forgiving to The Devil Inside, at least in part because Paramount aggressively stylized its marketing strategy for it after The Blair Witch Project, complete with a designated website concerning the current whereabouts of the purported real-life people behind the movie characters and the ongoing investigation into the whole affair that we’ve seen in the footage. This looks silly now and doesn’t inspire much endearment for the movie but commercially, it worked. And Paramount probably doesn’t care either way; they got their money back and made a nice profit, and moved on.
With found footage currently getting back into the game, thanks in no small part to social media and video conferencing due to COVID, it’s interesting to see how The Devil Inside and the criticism it was dealt holds up, as I’m writing this exactly a decade later. My requirements with these kinds of movies are simple and singular: be immersive. That means good writing, acting and audiovisuals. In other words, get the basics right and you’re already well on your way.
But here’s where found footage’s Achilles heel gets exposed all too often already. People endlessly bickering or calling someone they’re looking for while aimlessly wandering around. Shaking the camera into a migraine episode to conceal dodgy effects. Lengthy conversations that are not interesting, to begin with, and/or that are hardly audible because nobody bothered to treat the room. I could go on but the gist of it is clear, stuff like that annoys me to no end and doesn’t contribute to the genre’s longevity, to put it mildly.
But no matter how I looked, The Devil Inside mostly manages to avoid all those trappings and actually turns out to have been, and still be, much better than it probably has any right to be. Barring a few erratic scenes, the camerawork is mostly pretty steady and adequately framed, the sound is clear and the acting is sufficiently relatable. Of particular note is Crowley’s eerie performance as the batshit crazy Maria. She really put herself through the wringer and gets dangerously close to going over the top at times. Regardless, ultimately, the movie isn’t breaking any ground, nor is it even really original, but it’s decently enough done and made.
The Devil Inside’s ending is indeed abrupt and understandably controversial. While it still kind of worked for me, I can also see how it can be off-putting. If I were being overly cynical, which I try not to be but just bear with me on this one, I would suggest that the producers tacked on the ending to lure people to the website, and to set up a lucrative sequel that, in spite of the profit it made, never came to be. And honesty compels me to admit that I can’t rule that out.
As for the writing, I really nowhere got disturbed by any overt inconsistencies. The Devil Inside’s antagonist, the devil inside if you will, doesn’t play by a clear framework of rules set within the movie, and where it took decades to gestate inside Maria, it has no problem jumping from one to another later on. But I’m not privy to any rules of conduct for devils or demons.
I’m clueless as to what a consistent framework for devils and demons would be like, and so is the movie. When watching it, all I know is that exorcists recognize some behavioural signs, and have developed a few methods on how they might be able to expel them. And I’m fine with that.
In conclusion, if you like found footage, there are worse ways to waste 90 minutes than by watching The Devil Inside. It may not be the best there is, with its predictable proceedings and abrupt ending, but give it a spin anyway because it’s not nearly as bad as you thought it was either.
The Devil Inside is available from Paramount Home Entertainment on DVD and Blu-Ray. You can check JustWatch for Digital options.