'The Devil Inside' Promises Demonic Possession for Everyone

Finally, the moral emptiness of the exorcism genre gets crossed with mass production

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In his 1976 book-length essay The Devil Finds Work, James Baldwin concludes an extended personal examination of race in American film with, of all things, The Exorcist. Looking up at the screen, Baldwin saw buckets of fake blood and fake gore and a levitating bed. Looking back at his life and his country, he saw Jim Crow and Vietnam. Baldwin had witnessed the devil, as he said, in the eyes of his countrymen, and his conclusion was that the devil "does not levitate beds, or fool around with little girls: we do." What scared Baldwin most about the movie was not the special effects, but the way in which the special effects substituted for a real understanding of sin. Or as Baldwin put it:

The mindless and hysterical banality of the evil presented in The Exorcist is the most terrifying thing about the film. The Americans should certainly know more about evil than that; if they pretend otherwise, they are lying, and any black man, and not only blacks -- many, many others, including white children -- can call them on this lie; he who has been treated as the devil recognizes the devil when they meet. At the end of The Exorcist, the demon-racked little girl murderess kisses the Holy Father, and she remembers nothing; she is departing with her mother, who will, presumably, soon make another movie.

Baldwin was right. More movies have been made, and (as he would be disappointed, but not surprised to learn) the mindless banality of the evil has only, if anything, increased. The Devil Inside, the exorcism flick hitting theaters today, has a ritual feel, but it's a ritual that has a lot more to do with the tidy repetitions of genre than it does with the real devils Baldwin is talking about. I didn't see the Blair Witch Project somehow, but at this point its cancerously metastasizing progeny are so numerous that watching the original almost seems unnecessary. We all recognize the cutesy documentary found footage conceit; the initially skeptical doofuses; the terrifying tells captured on film but unseen by the characters; the confessions to the camera; the meaningful blank spaces; the apocalyptic, ambiguous denoument. And, of course, if you get tired of the found-footage tropes, you can always start counting the exorcism-movie tropes: earnest but flawed priests defying the Church authorities; the possessed revealing one frightening secret after another; the visceral special effects. There isn't anything quite as impressive as the back-bending bit in 2010's The Last Exorcism, but whereas that film only had one person twisting herself into a pretzel, this film has a number of them.

Contagion overruns the movie's climax. 'The Exorcist,' races into 'Dawn of the Dead,' as everybody becomes the replicating adversary.

Indeed, if The Devil Inside has any innovation to make to the exorcism film genre, it's iteration. The film's promo material has played up the fact that the possessed, Maria Rossi (Suzan Crowley) is inhabited by not one, not two, but four devils. The crass quantification is a true reflection of the film's moral vacuity. The Exorcist believed, in its own shallow way, that a single soul (whether the girl's or the priest's) was worth making a movie about.

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Noah Berlatsky is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He edits the online comics-and-culture website The Hooded Utilitarian and is the author of the forthcoming book Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics, 1941-1948.

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