At last, a horror film for disaffected Catholic traditionalists embittered against the Church for post-Vatican II changes; who see the Church itself, not just the larger culture, as compromised by modernism, and impeding orthodox clerics from carrying out true spiritual work.
Not, of course, that that particular demographic was clamoring for a horror movie to call their own. Other than Mel Gibson … and E. Michael Jones … I’m not sure how many disaffected traditionalist Catholic horror-movie fans there are out there, although as worldviews go radical traditionalism does seem eminently suited to the perverse paranoia and melancholy permeating the genre. At any rate, if I considered Pope Benedict XVI a tool of a Masonic plot against the Church, I imagine I might take some satisfaction in knowing that The Devil Inside was getting the message out, after a fashion.
Less encouraging, to be sure, would be the horrendous response to the film, which opened at the top of the box office on the strength of a canny marketing campaign—and the fact that it hadn’t been screened for critics. Lest anyone think that its impressive numbers betoken a previously untapped Lefebvrite horror audience, audiences hated it. Word of mouth has been atrocious, and the film tumbled after opening day. Audiences awarded it a CinemaScore rating of F, and critics, when they got around to seeing it, were no kinder: The Devil Inside is currently pulling a mere 6% at Rotten Tomatoes.
At the movie’s Wikipedia entry, an unreferenced claim notes, with a bit of hyperbole that might itself be further canny marketing: “It has been suggested that the ending in particular may be the worst in the history of cinema.” Admit it, you want to see it now, don’t you? Either way, thanks to the film’s low-budget “found footage” pseudo-documentary style, The Devil Inside was already profitable on opening day. There is actually discussion about a possible sequel.
The Devil Inside opens with what is purported to be a chilling recording of a 911 call and crime-scene footage from a blood-soaked 1989 triple murder of two priests and a nun. The confessed murderer, Maria Rossi (Suzan Crowley) was subsequently transferred to a mental hospital in Rome.
Two decades later, Maria’s daughter Isabella (Fernanda Andrade), who was a child at the time, has learned that her mother was undergoing an exorcism at the time of the killings. Somehow she has fallen in with a documentary filmmaker named Michael (Ionut Grama) working on a project about exorcism, and Michael winds up following Isabella to Rome to meet her mother.
In Rome, Isabella and Michael visit a Vatican-sanctioned university course on exorcism (as seen last year in The Rite), where clerical and lay students discuss standards of proof and ruling out mental illness and so forth. Students are even shown footage of a patient who seems, by all reasonable horror-movie standards, clearly possessed—but the priestly professore states that the Church’s finding in that case was mental illness.
So far, so good; it seems that The Devil Inside is poised to do what The Rite, otherwise a pretty decent Hollywood take on exorcism, failed to do: offer actual examples of an occasional troubled person who isn’t possessed, just to mix things up.
But no. Before long, Isabella and Michael meet a pair of serious young priests, a British cleric named Father Benjamin (Simon Quarterman) and an American named Father David (Evan Helmuth) who is also a medical doctor, who explain the truth: The Church today is not in the business of actually helping people who need her help. The rite of exorcism itself has changed (exactly how isn’t stated), and the presumption of mental illness is so strong that an authorized finding of possession is almost impossible.
It’s true that the rite of exorcism has been updated in recent years, once in 1999 and again in 2004. It’s also true that the new ritual has been criticized for weakening the language of the original, for example, for omitting language commanding demons in favor of language of supplication directed to God.
Such charges may be worth taking seriously. Less creditable is dialogue like “In the eyes of the church, what we’re doing is wrong … That’s how we know it’s so right.” And demons who emit EMP-style waves disrupting cameras and electronics, which I can imagine working in theory, but is just silly here. Oh, and since The Rite actually included a random jump scene with a yowling cat, The Devil Inside has one with a snarling dog. Ah, nothing like the classics.
One of the film’s signature images, an older nun with the telltale white irises of the possessed, is spotted on the street as the camera and its subjects pass by. It’s a throwaway image, not much more meaningful than the barking dog. You see what a state the Church is in? Demonic nuns openly wander the streets of Rome, and the Vatican does nothing.
The whole exorcism genre has a fatal flaw, which is that it is overshadowed by the ending of the original Exorcist. No one has ever come up with a better climactic twist than the demon jumping out of the original victim into the exorcising priest, or another bystander, so they just keep doing it over and over and over. The Rite did it too. The Devil Inside practically telegraphs it by having the priest teaching the exorcism class mention the possibility for the benefit of students who have never seen an exorcism movie.
Last year’s The Rite, despite its flaws, was probably the most pro-Catholic exorcism movie in Hollywood history. The Devil Inside may be the most blatantly anti-Catholic, or at least anti-Church. Having thus exhausted the gamut of possibilities, perhaps there is no need for another exorcism film next January—or, if there is, we can all ignore it.