Maybe The Devil Was Inside, But The Crowd Was Heading Out

The Devil Inside has received so much bad publicity already, it’s hard to pile on here and note that two people walked out of the Cinemark Louis Joliet (probably more than 10 percent of the audience on a Saturday morning) due to the movie’s lack of merits. It’s the first time since I started reviewing that I’ve seen walkouts.

But I’m not going to spend a lot of time pondering the poor dialogue and flimsy acting in this one. After all, Paramount Pictures spent a paltry $1 million producing this movie, while it raked in $35 million over the weekend. Normally I wouldn’t discuss earnings, because who cares, but I think that’s an impressive return on investment worth noting, one which could have far-reaching consequences moving forward (although film followers probably said the same thing about The Blair Witch Project, to no avail). No script and a non-existent budget? Let’s do it!

Instead, think back to the dusty, pre-Internet days of 1988 (a timeframe which inspired two recent horror/suspense flicks, but more on that later). The Last Temptation of Christ, Marty Scorsese’s excellent drama about Jesus, manages to infuriate everyone even remotely related to Christianity. Filmgoers are treated to picket lines of Christians (full disclosure: I’m one) hacked off at a portrayal of Christ they don’t agree with (yet probably haven’t seen Marty’s fine film). The film sinks at the box office, despite its merits.

Now it’s 2012. The Devil Inside repeatedly takes aim at the bureaucracy and antiquated philosophies of the Catholic Church. The filmmakers even say “The Vatican did not endorse this movie” right at the start. Yet no word of picket lines, angry, fist-shaking homilies against the film or mass boycotts.

So what happened? I can think of a couple different hot-button issues that would mobilize American Catholics to sink a film with a moderately tangential topical storyline. I suspect this film succeeds without controversy because a) exorcism isn’t sexy anymore and b) the movie is really bad, and bad movies don’t draw derision.

Back to the screen. The film begins in the scary year of 1989. Paranormal Activity 3 was set in 1988, so that two-year period has suddenly become the occult touchstone of choice. I’ll blame the two-headed serpent of Guns ‘N Roses and George H.W. Bush.

Maria Rossi kills three priests involved in exorcising her. She’s holed up in a filthy, hoarder house where the murders occur, which leads me to equate dirty basements to nasty killing. I ran for the vacuum after this one.

Maria is shipped off to an asylum in the Vatican. Twenty years later, her daughter, Isabella, embarks to that Italian enclave for a mother-daughter reunion, although Isabella is filming a documentary. Therefore, we endure the shaky, hand-held (and sickness-inducing) camerawork that defined Blair Witch. Matter of fact, throughout Devil, we’re treated/forced to look at nods to Blair Witch, including close-up shots of Visine-needing eyeballs and engorged nostrils. Visine would have been an ideal product placement here.

In Rome, Isabella hooks up with a couple rogue priests who perform exorcisms that the Vatican doesn’t endorse. They use the equivalent of the multimedia arsenal a high school AV is armed with to perform this procedure, including multiple cameras, computer hookups and medical equipment too.

Throughout, we’re treated to the classic possession vs. mental illness conundrum, an interesting dilemma which deserved more screen time here. Mother-daughter-demon-swapping-asylum-breakout drama ensues, along with a suicide/standoff involving Father David. It’s all too much, and it all ends with a lesson: If you get in a car with a demon-possessed driver, wear a seatbelt.

So what could have saved this one? Father Guido Sarducci! The great Don Novello (he played Guido) and a hearty dose of Catholic humor would have vastly improved this rogue-priests-on-adventure tale. I can see it now — Father Guido teams up with fellow clergyman Jack Black to exorcise patients the Vatican refuses to. It’s the New Testament meets Ghostbusters, featuring Mel Gibson as a bumbling, confused Pope, whom Sarducci accuses of getting his appointment only due to his card trick acumen. I’d buy my ticket online immediately.
Quotable moments

“Am I going to flip out one day? Is it a matter of time?” — Isabella, wondering if she’ll attract the same demons her mother did.

“It felt like an old prison.” — Isabella on her mother’s asylum conditions.

“You guys are performing exorcism without the church’s permission?” — Isabella to Priests Ben and David

“Forget about the church, David!” — Ben

“Something horrible happened in 1989 and it wasn’t Maria Rossi’s fault.” — Ben

“(Exorcism) changes you.” — Ben, on being an exorcising priest

“I’ve seen the devil way more than I’ve seen God.” — David, on his role as a rogue, exorcising priest
Preview profiling

I think Cinemark missed the boat this week with regards to previewing movies I might be interested in. Rather than point me in the direction of God versus Satan docudramas, or even upcoming dark religion pieces, they thought I’d be interested in car chases, explosions and fighting. Don’t get me wrong, I like all that stuff, but I like it all in the safety of my own neighborhood.
Product placement protocol

No oddly placed diamond company crucifixes or drug company nods at the asylum were apparent here. Then again, with its $1 million budget, Paramount didn’t need any extra corporate cash to produce this one. But someone should have contacted Visine.
Other observations at the moviehouse:

The upcoming Underworld: Awakening, besides making me want to upchuck, looks like a mashup between King Kong and Mortal Kombat.
Bruce Willis jumps out of a wonderful-looking, mid-‘70s El Camino in the upcoming GI Joe: Retaliation. The Camino’s cameo might be the highlight of the film, based on the previews.
For two weeks in a row, it’s been cold at the Cinemark. Maybe the manager is keeping it cold on Saturday morning to boost breakfast popcorn sales?
Chronicle features teens that gain supernatural powers and use them to cause havoc, like car accidents and convenience store mayhem. Sounds good, but throw in a scene where they use their powers to ace the SAT, date the most popular cheerleader and summon a storm to cancel school the day of a tough test and I’m in.
The Dictator, featuring Sacha Baron Cohen, looks amusing, compared to the superhero scrapple headed to the theater in 2012.

Dave Wilson Romeoville