Sweet, innocent-looking women shrieking the most foul profanities imaginable!
Limbs cracking and twisting in impossible ways!
Video cameras jiggling and swaying frantically!
Bodily fluids spewing willy-nilly!
Okay, so far, it sounds like a typical Charlie Sheen date, but throw “demonic possession” into the mix, and you have our latest Smackdown, a grueling battle of evil vs. evil between two shaky-cam mockumentary Exorcist ripoffs, the just-released The Devil Inside and 2010’s The Last Exorcism. (I can’t take credit for this one, which I’ve lifted from some long-forgotten source, but you really could call either of them The Linda Blair Witch Project.)
Do you dare read on? Of course you do. The power of Smackdown compels you!
Twenty years ago, Maria Rossi (Suzan Crowley) brutally murdered three people – two priests and a nun – who were in her home for reasons that are blindingly obvious to everyone except her now-grown daughter Isabella (Fernanda Andrade). Maria was exported to a mental institution in Italy, and now, Isabella has decided to visit her with some dude named Michael (Ionut Grama – not a typo), inexplicably filming her every move.
Maria turns out to be still crazy after all these years; she’s cut inverted crosses all over her arms and (yeah, like in the poster) on the inside of her lip, and she compulsively repeats the phrase “Connect the cuts” in such a way that it sounds like “Connect the cots,” which sounds like a perfectly reasonable plan if the cots are too small. But confusing accents aside, the big question: Is Maria criminally insane or does she have…The Devil Inside?
Isabella decides to err on the side of nuttiness and recruits a couple of wacky freelance exorcists (Simon Quarterman and Evan Helmuth) to see if they can’t give those illegally squatting demons a what-for. Subsequent to which, you should brace yourself for, among other things…the Worst. Baptism. EVER.
Daniel Stamm’s The Last Exorcism takes the unusual approach of having its main character, evangelist extraordinaire Cotton Marcus (Patrick Fabian) accept an invitation to perform an exorcism for the purpose of demonstrating for the documentary being made about him how phony his whole ritual is. But is the strange case of a farmer’s sweet-faced teenage daughter, Nell Sweetzer (Ashley Bell), the exception? Are her profane tirades and violent impulses the result of abuse by her father (Louis Herthum, a sort of hayseed version of Corbin Bernsen), guilt over an accidental pregnancy, your typical teenage bitchiness, or could this be the real McEvil?
And what’s the dealio with Nell’s creepy brother Caleb? And if this really is The Last Exorcism…What the hell’s going on in The Devil Inside?
Here’s the first, and arguably only, thing you have to know about The Devil Inside: I can’t recall ever seeing an entire audience so unanimously, vocally, seriously pissed off at a movie’s ending. Not just at the film’s brevity or abrupt halt, or that it was an utterly arbitrary and unsatisfying conclusion, or that it had occurred just when the movie had seemingly just started to really get going…. I mean, sure, it was all that too, but it was mainly just that it was so stone cold stupid. I won’t spoil it here, but if I’ve made you at all curious about it, email me, and I will happily save you the price of the movie ticket with full disclosure.
To be clear, the flaws in this thing kick in long before the end. I am otherwise unfamiliar with the work of director/co-writer/editor James Brent Bell and intend to remain that way, even though he made something entitled Stay Alive (2006), which ranks a whopping 24 out of 100 on Metacritic, and appears to be Frankie Muniz’s finest hour. But whatever his talents, the guy clearly needs some schooling in the basics of mockumentaries, which require an unscripted, convincingly spontaneous “you are there” feel to them. Deprived of that, Devil Inside feels like a weak, transparent excuse for shaky camera-work, poor lighting and general amateurishness. Thanks to lousy dialogue and even lousier actors, the movie contains barely a moment that doesn’t feel scripted. Andrade, with her exotic good looks, stiff line-readings and poor taste in material, has a bright future ahead in soft-core porn. On the other end of the emotive spectrum are Crowley and Bonnie Morgan, playing another possession victim, who give it their limb-flailing, f-bomb-dropping, evil-sounding all, and it’s hard not to feel a little sorry for these actresses doing such clearly uncomfortable, vulnerable and exhausting work for such a silly, forgettable movie. But then again, that’s show biz!
Admittedly, the exorcism scenes are not without the occasional effective jolt or jarring image. If all you care about is the art of prosthetic body contortion, this is your movie. Still, I’d suggest waiting until it hits Netflix Streaming (I give it about two weeks), where you can fast-forward to the money scenes.
Netflix Streaming, incidentally, is where you can currently catch The Last Exorcism, which is no masterpiece itself, but in retrospect, now seems like one. Stamm and his writers Andrew Gurland and Huck Botko have a far better grasp of how documentaries look and feel, and they manage to convincingly set up why a movie is being made about this character and why the camera continues following him as the story unfolds (as opposed to Devil Inside, which actually includes a scene whose sole purpose is to point out the multiple-camera set-up in the car). Fabian gives a likable, engaging performance as the preacher, convincingly rendering his evolution from skepticism to concern for Nell, and Ashley Bell has a natural innocence in the early scenes that makes her later scenes all the more unsettling.
Last Exorcism’s most refreshing aspect is its approach to the material, in that, completely unlike the deadpan solemnity of Devil Inside, its protagonist refuses to take the obviously preposterous notion of demonic possession seriously, using the documentary not to show off his skills as an exorcist, but as a performer. It’s a clever twist, and one is left wishing that it had been in the service of a movie that never rises above par. It takes too long for the horrific aspects to really kick in, and once they do, it’s pretty standard stuff for the genre: lots of cursing and neck-cracking and levitating and wall-climbing and malevolent grinning and creepy music underscoring, which completely undermines the “found footage” premise that the ending (which is also abrupt, but at least not infuriatingly so) leaves us with.
On balance, The Last Exorcism is pretty much what it aims to be. It just doesn’t aim very high.
So okay, neither film is what you’d call, you know, good. Your time would be far better spent watching The Exorcist, even if it’s that ill-advised “Version You Never Saw.” Your time would even be better spent watching The Exorcist III. Probably also those Exorcist origin stories from a few years ago that everyone including me ignored. I will concede that your time would possibly not be better spent watching Exorcist II: The Heretic, but I can’t confirm that and don’t plan to try.
If you’re really, really into the genre, so much that you simply must see one of these, but not both, here’s how it boils down: On the one hand, if all you want is some grueling devil possession scenes of cursing and growling and limb-snapping, Devil Inside delivers a few more of those. On the other, Last Exorcism, while not bringing much new to this rather unappealing table, succeeds far better at what it sets out to do. It feels like a complete movie, albeit one that’s not all that interesting, whereas Devil Inside, among its many other drawbacks, feels unfinished, as if they’d unexpectedly run out of film. To that end, it forfeits the contest, making our winner by default… The Last Exorcism.