"Paranormal Activity," a series that has now reached three films with a fourth on the way later this year, put found footage horror in the mainstream. When done well (see here, here or here) the style can produce a transcendent horror experience. This makes a lot of sense, seeing as the whole construct is meant to place you the viewer in direct contact with the threat via a first-person perspective. The tradeoff for this extra oomph in the scare department is having to convince viewers that the camera perspective is a believable part of the character's lives. If a filmmaker can't get past the "why are they filming this?" moment, the film doesn't have a chance.
"The Devil Inside," the latest in the long parade of found footage horror films, answers that core question in a familiar way: by making one of the main characters, Michael, a documentarian. In this case, Michael is working on a film about Isabella's mother, who murdered three people when Isabella was 6-years-old. Isabella has learned that the murders occurred during an exorcism, and after her mother is found not-guilty by reason of insanity she is moved -- inexplicably -- to a facility for the criminally insane near Vatican City in Rome.
Michael and Isabella venture to Rome in search of answers around the case, and almost immediately find themselves in the belly of the underground exorcism scene. After attending a lecture that serves as one of the lazier exposition sequences in recent memory, essentially laying out the basics of possession and exorcism, Isabella hooks up with two young men who have been performing exorcisms on cases of possession that the Catholic exorcism squad turns away. Though it's unclear exactly why the official channels have failed these cases, what's clear is that these two renegades have had success. Isabella and Michael observe and film one successful exorcism, before the four decide that a highly-illegal exploratory exorcism, to take place in a hospital run by the church, is the only course of action that makes sense.
Up to this point, "The Devil Inside" has hit almost all the found footage high notes. Sure, it cheats its way through most of the exorcism mythology, satisfying itself with only the most basic details, all of which have been cribbed from earlier films, but the upshot is that Michael has largely stayed out of the way, allowing us to witness the action through Isabella's eyes. As the two exorcists become more integral to the plot, the film begins to rely more heavily on reality-TV-style testimonials to further drive characterization and plot.
This shoddy storytelling culminates toward the film's conclusion with "Devil" resembling a season of "Real World: Rome" under possession of a demon -- including a car rigged up with three cameras a la the old HBO standby "Taxi Cab Confessions." Because if there's going to be important exorcism related action that you want to film for your totally believable documentary, it's probably going to happen in a car. At its nadir, the characters begin to unravel and snipe at one another with Isabella at one point going so far as to complain that Michael is always filming everything. She issues this complaint to a camera, natch.
Even this absurdity would likely have been tolerable if the film's finale hadn't fully unraveled the preceding 70 minutes. As discussed early, with any of these found footage horror movies, the question that must be answered is "why does this footage exist"? A secondary question though must be "how does this footage exist," and it's in answering this question that "Devil Inside" fails horribly. Without spoiling, suffice it to say that the film's ending, coming at about 80 minutes, is very sudden. One moment the characters are at a climactic moment and the next the screen is dark. The filmmakers -- the real world filmmakers that is -- inform us that the "Isabella Rossi case remains open," and then show movies goers a URL where they can learn more. In my screening, this was followed by out-right booing from a near capacity audience.
Having been released by a major Hollywood studio, perhaps this level of cynicism and commodification shouldn't be surprising, but it has to be said that films like "Blair Witch" or even "Paranormal Activity" that have successfully made use of web-based marketing strategies, have those campaigns stop at the doors to a theater. Once inside, viewers could count on a self-contained, complete experience. "Devil Inside" hopes to change that. While there may be precedent for something like this, "Apollo 18" used a similar tactic in its epilogue, the subtle difference here is very important.
"Apollo's" whole premise is that a a wiki-leaks-like expose is underway online, with a shadowy filmmaker exposing the government cover-up. Within the context of the film, "Devil" makes no similar explanation. If viewers are to buy Michael and Isabella as the documentarians, then the ending forces us to ask who actually edited and produced the film that we're watching? How are their titles overlaid on many of the talking-head interviews? If there is an editor, why did they leave in so many of Michael's obvious garbage shots? Set-up sequences and other random traveling/moving shots are included to make the proceedings seem more authentic, but if there is some other filmmaker here, why not turn out an actual quality documentary?
The film's conclusion opens up all these questions and more. It also opens the door for even more cynical cash-in sequels. Many casual horror observers may see "Devil Inside" as the successor to "Paranormal Activity's" runaway success, but the comparison really only serves to highlight "Devil's" irredeemable flaws. Where the first "Activity" kept things small so a mythos could blossom, "Devil" keeps details vague or intentionally hidden so the filmmakers can cash-in with otherwise unnecessary sequels. If it had been more lovingly or even decently crafted, "Devil" might have been a tolerable entry in a quickly crowding sub-genre. But as is, "Devil" more easily embodies all the most grotesque elements of Hollywood's use of horror fans for a quick buck.