Despite the palpable air of deja vu that hangs over it like a light fog, “The Devil Inside” generates a fair amount of suspense during sizable swaths of its familiar but serviceable exorcism-centric scenario. Pic works best during its first half as helmer William Brent Bell gives his low-budget, high-concept suspenser the look and feel of a cable TV doc (think “MSNBC Investigates,” only creepier). But there’s a marked downtick in verisimilitude as the faux documentary gradually devolves into found-footage gimmickry. Pic’s $34.5 opening weekend shows moviegoers are ready for a scare, particularly from the first wide-release of the year.
Working from a script he co-wrote with co-producer Matthew Peterman, Bell kicks off with an effective mix of ersatz newscasts and crime-scene video as Maria Rossi (Suzan Crowley), a deeply troubled and perhaps demonically possessed housewife and mom, is arrested, tried and ultimately institutionalized after brutally slaying three would-be exorcists in 1989.
Flash-forward to 2009, and Isabella Rossi (Fernanda Andrade), Maria’s grown-up daughter, is determined to discover just what the hell happened to her mother — and why, for reasons no one wants to explain, Maria was spirited away to a mental hospital across the ocean near Vatican City.
Accompanied by documentarian Michael Schaefer (Ionut Grama), who provides the p.o.v. for most of the pic, Isabella travels to Italy in the hope of reconnecting with her mom and, just as important, getting a crash course at what’s described as the Vatican School of Exorcism. Two medically trained priests (Simon Quarterman, Evan Helmuth) offer to accelerate Isabella’s learning curve by allowing her and Michael to accompany them when — in the pic’s most potent sequence — they cast demons from a tormented young woman (Bonnie Morgan). But when the priests attempt a similar cleansing of Maria, they learn the hard way that the devil is in the details. And, sometimes, in the exorcists.
Moodily lensed on Italian and Romanian locations by Gonzalo Amat, “The Devil Inside” benefits from persuasive performances by its lead players (Quarterman and Helmuth are particularly impressive) and special effects that are all the more striking for being used so sparingly. Overall storytelling is adroitly fleet and economical; so economical, in fact, that the pic clocks in at 83 minutes only because of the slowest final credits roll in recent memory.