The opening credits of the found-footage excretion The Devil Inside include a helpful disclaimer advising us that the Vatican “did not endorse this film nor aid in its completion ” just in case we might be inclined to believe the Holy See were in the business of making schlocky horror flicks. One’s heart goes out to Satan whose involvement in the film is pretty clearly implied by the title but who received no such disclaimer. Even he deserves better than to be associated with this dreck.
The pseudo-doc-style story centers on a young girl Isabella Rossi (Fernanda Andrade) whose mother Maria (Suzan Crowley) murdered three people twenty years prior during what was later revealed to be an exorcism gone awry. Seeking to learn more about the tragedy that consumed her mother Isabella travels to Italy where Maria is currently housed in a Vatican-run mental hospital. The doctors prove frustratingly insensitive to her mother’s affliction causing Isabella to see out a pair of young renegade exorcists (Simon Quarterman and Evan Helmuth) for help.
Maria is one creepy bird a frazzled cat-lady whose eyes blaze with penetrating high-octane craziness even under heaviest of sedation. An early scene in which Isabella meets with her near-catatonic mother and gently tries to ascertain whether her insanity is of the conventional or demonically-inspired variety oozes tension as we wait for her whispered ramblings to explode into full-on Satanic mania. It’s a terrifically fraught scene by far the best in the film and sadly the only point in which we ever come close to being scared.
The film proffers a variety of different narrative threads and chooses to resolve none of them. What happened to the English priest’s uncle or Isabella’s baby? And what of that poor possessed gal with the hemorrhaging vagina? Was she ever able to get that under control? God only knows. Even crazy-eyes Maria the film’s MVP makes an all-too-hasty exit never to be hear from again after a half-baked exorcism attempt.
Director/co-writer William Brent Bell’s clear aim is to mimic the wildly successful Paranormal Activity films but he ignores the found-footage standard-bearer’s most important precept which is to keep the story simple rely as little on the “actors” as possible and pile on the cheap scares one after another. Instead we’re handed an abundance of character details we never asked for and which never really amount to anything save for some choice over-acting in the third act when the devil’s machinations turn everyone against each other. The film devolves into a kind of exorcism-themed Real World episode replete with “confessionals” in which the characters tearfully air their frustrations -- as if we gave a damn. Perhaps it’s a good thing we don’t because The Devil Inside concludes with what might be the least-satisfying horror ending in a decade.
In his effort to recall and contrast the enthusiastic optimism that surrounded the presidential campaign of RFK with the heartbreaking illusion-shattering reality of his assassination Estevez wisely bypasses conventional biopic storytelling or even conspiracy-minded cinematic razzle-dazzle of JFK. Instead he tells the tale from the ground level focusing on a large disparate cast of characters of differing social status – some interconnected some not – who’ve assembled at Los Angeles’ swank Ambassador Hotel on the fateful day in 1968 and as a group they’re both as troubled as that turbulent year and still each clinging to hope in their own individual ways. There’s the Dodger-loving busboy (Freddy Rodriguez) contending with a brooding racist kitchen boss (Christian Slater) and bolstered by an eloquent chef (Laurence Fishburne); the head of staff (William H. Macy) who’s sleeping with a comely switchboard girl (Heather Graham) while seemingly happily married to the hotel’s compassionate beauty salon operator (Sharon Stone); she in turn counsels both a young teen bride-to-be (Lindsay Lohan) marrying a friend (Elijah Wood) to protect him from service in Vietnam and the faded boozy lounge singer (Demi Moore) whose self-destructive cruelty alienates her subservient husband (Emilio Estevez); a veteran hotel manager (Anthony Hopkins) and his retiring crony (Harry Belafonte) reflect on their lifetime of experience while an idealistic Kennedy campaigner (Joshua Jackson) dispatches two volunteers (Shia LaBeoufand Brian Geraghty) to recruit last-minute voters but they head off on an acid trip with a high-minded hippie (Ashton Kutcher); the disconnected May-December couple (Martin Sheen and Helen Hunt) the black campaign volunteer (Nick Cannon) who’s already lost too many leaders; the crusading Czechoslovakian journalist (Lenka Janacek) scrambling for an interview with the candidate; and Kennedy himself appearing in news and archival footage the most eerily effective presence in the film. While such an A-list ensemble of actors initially seems like a director’s dream team they are also responsible for the biggest hurdle the film faces. While most films have a handful of stars and the luxury of time to help audiences forget their celebrity status and embrace them as the characters they’re playing Bobby keeps shoehorning more and more famous faces into short scenes which makes it somewhat more difficult to shake the initial distraction of “Hey there’s so-and-so!” Some of skilled cast—particularly Hopkins Belafonte Macy Sheen Hunt Rodriguez and Fishburne—make the transition easier but with others who are known more as “stars” than actors (Moore Stone Lohan and Kutcher) it takes longer to adjust. And that’s not to say those performances are bad: Moore is terrific reminding us more of her innate watchability on screen than her well-preserved looks and much-younger husband; Stone is in top form despite her overly dowdy get-up; and Kutcher shows his skill with a slightly subtler form of comedy than he usually delivers. Lohan is only passable however trying too self-consciously to appear vulnerable. Still other performances are revelations: Cannon shows as-yet-unseen depth and fire Jackson displays a Clooney-esque self-assured poise and Estevez smartly underplays his role. Understatement definitely seems to be Estevez’s watchword. He typically eschews an overly flashy cinematic approach and simply allows his actors to bring the scenes to emotional life even as he takes great pains to get the period details just right. When he does bring his technical filmmaking savvy more obviously to the forefront primarily in the scenes that integrate real scenes of Kennedy into the story it’s especially potent. Indeed the first three-quarters of the film are well-shot well-acted vignettes that evoke an era but it’s the thoughtful and clever integration of RFK into the third act that unifies and ultimately gives each of the stories—and the film as a whole—genuine dramatic power. Ultimately Estevez uses Kennedy’s own words to deliver a solemn respectful eulogy for the man and a hopeful call to keep the man’s dreams alive.