Monday, January 9, 2012

The Devil Inside: What Are Audiences So Angry About?

Posted By on Mon, Jan 9, 2012 at 4:13 PM

The found-footage exorcism thriller The Devil Inside is quickly becoming the stuff of legend. Not for a whispering campaign wondering if the events depicted in the movie are real, Blair Witch or Paranormal Activity style (those movies at least maintained the thin illusion via the lack of closing-credits cast list), not for visceral intensity; not even for the princely opening weekend gross, some three times its studio's projections. No, in just a few days The Devil Inside has developed a reputation as the movie with the ending that frustrates, vexes, and altogether infuriates its audience.

I've written about this phenomenon before: horror audiences, at least in my New York-based experience, have made a ritual out of booing the end, bringing voice to a vague frustration that somehow this horror movie would offer, in its closing minutes, something far more interesting, satisfying, and/or mind-blowing than other horror movies (oddly, the first ninety percent of the movie being exactly like other horror movies rarely draws any ire). The Devil Inside brings these feelings to a boil; there have been accounts of people screaming, swearing, throwing food, and spitting on the floor in disgust.

Before converting its audience into an angry mob, the movie holds some interest, although it's too inept and borderline nonsensical to capitalize on its best ideas. Most intriguing, it's presented not as found footage from someone's camcorder but as a (mostly) finished documentary about Isabella Rossi (Fernanda Andrade), a young woman investigating what she believes to be the demonic possession of her mother Maria (Suzan Crowley). Maria has been shipped off to a mental hospital in Italy, but, we learn from priests Ben (Simon Quarterman) and David (Evan Helmuth), the Vatican is slippery about officially diagnosing these cases. As such, Ben and David perform exorcisms on the side, like a more pious, less profit-based version of the fascinating lead character in The Last Exorcism (2010).

For awhile, the faux-documentary conceit opens up the normally POV-constrained found footage genre with some talking heads and archival footage. But director/co-writer William Brent Bell (the awful ghost-in-the-videogame slasher movie Stay Alive) undermines his own premise by seeming to have little idea of how documentaries work on a practical level. During a pivotal visit in Maria's hospital room, he cuts between the documentarian's ground-level camera and surveillance-camera footage from above... which shows no evidence of the cameraman in the room with Isabella; it might be eerie if it wasn't so stupid. Elsewhere, Bell just assumes that anyone shooting a documentary will opt mostly for handheld close-ups whenever possible.

Still, there are some creepy exorcism scenes with the priests and Maria, which will probably play even creepier to anyone who counts demon possession among their worst fears (because of the relative lack of mobility, I'm always more freaked out by bumps in the night, but to each their own demons). But unlike The Last Exorcism, which ended poorly but at least grounded itself in a well-developed lead character, The Devil Inside turns murky where it wants to be insinuating, setting up ideas about multiple-demon possession and transference in ways both ham-handed and sort of confusing. The priests, the filmmaker, and Isabella begin to turn on each other in the run-up to a frenzied, silly ending, which I'll discuss after issuing spoiler warning if you feel that you need to experience the narrative cul-de-sac for yourself. The next paragraph will go into some details.

The ending itself, while spectacularly rushed and not coherent enough to have even token jump-scare effect, is not so different from any number of abrupt horror-movie finales; the weakness of these first-person and/or faux-doc horror movies is that they pretty much all have to finish with the same screaming followed by abrupt cut to black, rarely with the same chilling power as the last shot of Blair Witch. Where The Devil Inside differs is the tag that follows the abrupt cut, urging viewers to visit a website to find out more about the "case." I can't be sure, but I imagine this is what has sent so many audiences into an angry frenzy. The web tie-in is probably supposed to make the movie feel more real, to tease out audience suspension of disbelief that maybe this really happened, but Instead, the filmmakers seem to have confused their movie with an ad campaign in the most blatant, insulting way possible. (The website, which my better half dutifully visited after the movie, contains hints of plot twists that might've been creepy, had they been directly incorporated into the movie itself.)

In a way, though, the Friday-night tales of the horror audience tantrums to end all horror audience tantrums stoked my interest in the movie further, even knowing the inexplicable overreaction horror fans have to seeing exactly what they paid for. Previously, I wanted to see The Devil Inside because it I like horror movies and I'd seen most everything else playing. After hearing about the potential ruckus, I also wanted to see if it would really make people burn the theater to the ground. At my Saturday night screening in Manhattan, the reaction was more subdued, consisting largely of vocal discussions of what the audience should've seen instead; Mission: Impossible, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and Chipwrecked all came up. Still, we were all pretty irritated, and for once, I felt a kinship with this irritation rather than bafflement. It's not the kind of catharsis you're supposed to get from horror movies, but on a palate-cleansing first weekend in January, I guess I'll take it.

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