The Devil Inside


The Devil Inside

Static electricity can be murder!

(2012) Supernatural Horror (InSurge/Paramount) Fernanda Andrade, Evan Helmuth, Simon Quarterman, Ionut Grama, Suzan Crowley, Bonnie Morgan, Brian Johnson, Preston James Hiller, D.T. Carney, Maude Boranni, Marvin Duerkholz. Directed by William Brent Bell

 

Ah, Blair Witch Project, what hath thou wrought? Here is yet another in the long line of recent found footage films (i.e. Cloverdale, Apollo18) which to be honest are becoming rather gimmicky. While the Paranormal Activity series has been well-received both by critics and audiences alike, it is quickly becoming an excuse for sloppy camera work and poorly constructed plots.

Studios like these kinds of movies because they are extremely inexpensive to produce and when they hit it big, they can really upgrade the studio’s tax bracket. Even when they don’t hit it big, it doesn’t take much for them to make a profit and when they don’t, it’s not much of a write-off so it’s a win-win situation for the studio.

For audiences, however, it can be another matter. Maria Rossi (Crowley) was a Connecticut housewife who in 1989 killed two priests and a nun during an exorcism ceremony. She was found not guilty by reason of insanity and later moved from an asylum in Connecticut to one in Rome. Her daughter Isabella (Andrade) who was a little girl when her momma went all medieval is ready to visit her mom for the first time since then and in the fine tradition of reunions everywhere wants to film it, taking with her Michael, a somewhat slimy cameraman (Grama).

In Rome she is given permission by the Holy See to film an exorcism class where she meets Fr. Ben Rawlings (Quarterman) and Fr. David Keane (Helmuth), a couple of young exorcists-in-training who chafe under the Church bureaucracy and are eager to go off and perform exorcisms on  those who as they put it “have fallen through the cracks of the Church.” Naturally they become interested in Isabella’s case but they want to show her a real exorcism first, so they take her to visit Rosa (Morgan), a cruelly possessed teenager. After that, the two renegade priests visit Maria in the asylum and, as you can imagine, all Hell breaks loose.

I will grant you that the movie as much as I’m ripping on it does do a good job basically from the time Isabella gets to Rome and through the exorcism attempt of Maria in setting up the right mood. There are a few startle-scares (big dogs parking, loud crashes) but for the most part this is more atmosphere than gorefest. Those looking for demons and beasties best look elsewhere.

The acting, as it is in many of these sorts of films is just competent at best. Maintaining the illusion of reality means hiring unknowns and that is always a bit of a crap shoot. But then again, who goes to these sorts of movies for the acting?

A movie like this has to keep the viewer interested in what’s going to happen next and elicit a sense of dread from the audience (after all, the footage had to be “lost” before it was found and there’s usually a reason for that) but part of the problem is that you kind of know before the movie even starts that bad things are going to happen to the people in the film and it’s not going to end well for them. In a sense, their own genre works against them. For that reason, we need to care about the characters and quite frankly, the writers of the movie didn’t even care enough to make them anything more than cookie cutter characters.

Much of the audience anger (it has gotten very poor word of mouth) at the movie stems from the ending. I won’t spoil it other than to say it’s abrupt enough to give you whiplash, then refers you to a website for further information – which I did and while it gives you additional background information on the main characters and some of the other elements within the movie. I think the attention was to be innovative and turn the movie into a film/internet hybrid. While I think that’s a peachy concept, quite frankly it didn’t work well here and served only the make people really angry. The ending basically ruins the movie.

While some publications thought that Paramount was hoping for a Paranormal Activity-type franchise out of this film, I’m not so sure. I can’t see how this lends itself to a sequel, although I suppose it’s possible to have some other investigators investigate the happenings in the movie. I don’t think the found footage-style would work for that so much though.

The middle part of the movie was pretty good which is what makes this so sad. There is obviously potential here for a good movie, but then the horrible ending blows that to smithereens. It made pretty decent box office its first weekend (which I’m sure is what the studio was hoping for) but with the bad word-of-mouth and negative reviews I don’t foresee much staying power and I don’t think people are going to want to see a The Devil Inside 2. You can’t trample the goodwill of an audience and expect them to come back for more.

REASONS TO GO: Very creepy in places.

REASONS TO STAY: An ending that just about kills the movie. Makes you wonder if found footage movies have outstayed their welcome.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some fairly disturbing scenes and a couple of grisly images. The language is rough and as with most possession movies a lot of it is sexually based.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first release of Paramount’s low-budget InSurge brand.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/20/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 6% positive reviews. Metacritic: 18/100. The reviews are scathing.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Last Exorcism

DEMONIC PSYCHOBABBLE LOVERS: While the exorcisms are conducted in English rather than Latin, there are references to demons and demonic lore.

FINAL RATING: 4/10

TOMORROW: GalaxyQuest

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The Rite


The Rite

Even dilapidated boarding houses are mainly CGI these days.

(2011) Supernatural Horror (New Line) Anthony Hopkins, Colin O’Donoghue, Alice Braga, Ciaran Hinds, Rutger Hauer, Toby Jones, Marta Gastini, Maria Grazia Cucinotta, Arianna Veronesi, Andrea Calligari, Chris Marquette, Torrey DeVito, Ben Cheetham, Marija Karan. Directed by Mikael Hafstrom

Ever since The Exorcist Hollywood has periodically unleashed movies in which Roman Catholic priests do battle with demonic possessors, generally of innocent young girls. Some of these movies have been essentially visceral knock-offs meant to test the limits of our squeamishness. Not all of them are like that though.

Michael Kovak (O’Donoghue) is a young man with some heavy baggage in his past. His mother died when he was young and his father (Hauer), the undertaker in a small Midwestern town, is as cold to him as the snow that blankets the town each winter. As he has grown from childhood, he’s become increasingly convinced that there is no God, much to the dismay of his dad. He is also quite convinced that the mortuary business is not for him, to the greater dismay of his dad.

Michael enters the seminary, mainly for the free education but also to test his atheism. While he questions his faith, the Father Superior (Jones) senses something inside Michael, something good and decent and suggests that he attend the Vatican’s exorcism school. Michael is skeptical; he is planning (as he has all along) to opt out of his vows until the Father Superior tells him that the cost of his education will then be placed into a student loan of over $100K which Michael will owe. Reluctantly, Michael flies to Rome.

At the Vatican, Michael continues to question, drawing the attention of Father Xavier (Hinds) who advises Michael to spend some time with a veteran exorcist. Michael is then paired with Father Lucas Trevant (Hopkins), an acerbic and quirky priest who lives with a whole lot of cats he despises in a dilapidated old rooming house in Rome.

He’s working on the exorcism of a pregnant teenage girl (Gastini) but the results seem to be less spectacular than in the movies. “What’d you expect,” barks Father Lucas, “Spinning heads? Pea soup? ” That should give you all you need to know about the movie you’re watching.

As the exorcism progresses over a period of weeks, things get a little more strange and chilling. A lovely journalist (Braga) trying to get to the bottom of the Vatican’s involvement with exorcisms befriends Michael and he’s quite inclined to help her get her story. To be honest, Michael believes that this girl – and indeed, most “possessed” by demons – need psychiatric help more than exorcists. But the farther things go along and as unexplainable events occur, it is not Michael’s faith that will be tested but lack thereof.

That really is the difference between this movie and other demonic possession movies with maybe the exception of The Last Exorcism and even in that Cotton Marcus does have religious belief – he’s just not a believer in exorcisms. Here, Michael flat-out doubts the existence of God and the Devil which makes it more interested when confronted with evidence of the latter.

Hafstrom, who helmed the excellent 1408 (one of the better Stephen King adaptations) makes this almost clinical in places but takes the basic conceit of exorcism movies and turns it on its ear. I don’t know how much this was taken from the book this is based on (which I understand only provides a framework for the movie) but it is a bold move nonetheless.

The usually reliable Hopkins is a little over-the-top here. This isn’t a very subtle performance at all, and there are a few Hannibal Lecter mannerisms that are a bit startling. Most of the rest of the performances in the movie are more understated and nuanced; Hopkins stands out and not in a good way. In all honesty however I have to admit I’m not sure if he could have played it any other way.

This was advertised (and continues to be on DVD) as a horror film and in a lot of ways it isn’t, although there are some genuine creep-outs and some good startle scares too. However, most of the time it tends to be more of an examination of faith and the testing of it in a world which has moved more into a Missouri frame of mind – as in show me. We have become more used to a “just the facts” mindset and that’s not always a bad thing.

Faith implies a willingness to set aside fact and proof to take it on faith that something is so. Even science asks us to take some things on faith – for example, that faster than light travel isn’t possible. And, of course, it isn’t – until someone finds a way to make it happen. Science is a world limited to what we know and can prove. Faith is a world that tells us that there are things that not only we don’t understand, that we can’t understand. Art is a bridge between the two, allowing us to imagine things that are possible but also might not be and making them real. M.C. Escher to me comes closer to touching God than anybody.

But faith vs. science ranting aside, the movie may not necessarily be what you’re looking for when you want a good scare. It is a little smarter and a bit more practical but addresses some issues that most horror movies aren’t willing to tackle. It’s a well-made movie and for those interested in bigger questions than “how did they make that girl’s head do that,” it might be a good fit on a stormy night.

WHY RENT THIS: More of a psychological thriller than horror still packs some nice scares.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Hopkins chews the scenery and a little bit of him goes a long way here. Otherwise much more clinical than terrifying.

FAMILY VALUES: There are plenty of shocking and disturbing images, not to mention the adult thematic matter, some of it sexual. There’s also a bit of supernatural violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The translation of the Hungarian phrase Hauer utters several times in the film regarding his wife is “My love, my flower, my bliss.”

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is a featurette on the actual Vatican school of exorcism which includes interviews with the authors of the book that inspired the movie.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $96.1M on a $36M production budget; the movie made decent money.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Melancholia

The Unborn


The Unborn

Idris Elba finds out firsthand that kids suck, especially creepy icy blue-eyed dybbuk kids.

(Rogue) Odette Yustman, Gary Oldman, Cam Gigandet, Meagan Good, Carla Gugino, Jane Alexander, Idris Elba, Rhys Coiro, James Remar. Directed by David S. Goyer

Life is precious and we get to experience it all-too-briefly. If it’s precious to us, how much more so must it be to an entity that doesn’t possess it?

Casey Beldon (Yustman) has been experiencing some terrifying nightmares of late, bad dreams that she can’t explain but are unsettling. She is a pretty college student with a group of awesome friends, but those nightmares are starting to spill over into her waking hours. Images of creepy children with icy blue eyes, dogs with creepy masks, creepy fetuses floating in creepy jars, creepy big-ass ants, creepy creepy creepy.

It turns out that Casey is actually one-half of a matching set; she had a twin who had died in utero, leading to the suicide of her mother (Gugino) and some lingering guilt from her dad (Remar). Along the way she is led to an ancient woman in a nursing home who – surprise! – turns out to be her grandma Sophie (Alexander) and also a concentration camp survivor. It also turns out that the experimentation that had been performed upon identical twin in Auschwitz had led to the unleashing of a dybbuk, a creature from Jewish legend that was the spirit of the unborn. And this particular dybbuk (with the innocuous name of Jumby) wants to be born in the worst way.

Casey watches her friends get picked off one by one by the angry Jumby and those he is able to control until she reaches out to the local Rabbi Sendak (Oldman) for help. This leads to the mother of all exorcisms, this one from the Jewish tradition and involves the bleating of a ram’s horn courtesy of the good Rabbi, who must have gotten a kick of the irony of a cleric named for the author of Where the Wild Things Are blowing through a ram’s horn.

I read several fanboy-type reviews that bashed this movie and particularly the director, sneering at a resume that includes such treats as The Invisible to his directing resume and Kickboxer 2: The Road Back and Puppetmaster vs. Demonic Toys as a writer. However, they fail to mention he also wrote the remarkable Dark City and the last two Batman movies as well. That’s what we in the critic biz call “selective resume tunnel vision” or SRTV for short. It’s a terrible condition, so give generously at the next telethon.

This is actually not a bad horror movie at all. It has a lot of the requisite elements – a major league yechh factor, frightening images, attractive female leads dressed in skimpy underwear and plenty of shock frights to give you the jumpies. It is a bit light on the sex, which is a bit intriguing considering it is essentially a horror movie about something wanting to be born so bad it would kill for it, but I suspect that the studio wanted a PG-13 rating which is what this got. Sometimes, you gotta go for the gusto for a really effective scare film.

Odette Yustman is a pretty girl and a decent actress, but I’m not sure she’s really scream queen material. She doesn’t have that kick-ass quality that a good horror heroine needs, and her character is written to be a bit on the passive side anyway, which makes it harder for the audience to connect with her. Alexander stands out in a fairly solid supporting cast as the grandmother, and Twilight’s Gigandet does well as the second banana boyfriend.

I give Goyer props for writing a supernatural theme from a Jewish viewpoint instead of the usual Catholic one. It gives the movie a nice twist that sets it apart from other supernatural horror movies. If you’re looking for a disc that’s going to deliver some nice frights and make for a dark night scary movie popcorn evening, this one certainly makes a solid candidate.

WHY RENT THIS: There are some pretty nifty visuals, particularly the demonic upside-down headed people and dogs. Some quirky humor scattered throughout shows up at unexpected moments.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Some of the plot points stretch believability to the breaking point. I couldn’t really get behind Yustman who seems a bit too passive to be a horror heroine.

FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of graphic violence and terrifying images, lots of foul language (hey, you’d swear too) and some implied sexuality in this one, so no kiddies allowed.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The scene depicting concentration camp experimentation on the pigmentation of the iris of the eyes is based on actual experiments conducted by Dr. Josef Mengele who is, we assume, the doctor depicted here.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief