Finally, the moral emptiness of the exorcism genre gets crossed with mass production
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.
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.
But The Devil Inside doesn't care about no single stinking soul. Yes, it reels you in with an intergenerational family tragedy plot—Isabella Rossi (Fernanda Andrade) comes to Italy to see her mother, who has been languishing in an asylum for 20 years. But that's just a ruse. The real energy of the film isn't in Isabella's trauma, or even in her mother's struggle with her demons. Instead, it's with the giddily fecund contagion that overruns the movie's climax. From The Exorcist we race into Dawn of the Dead, as everybody becomes the replicating, consuming, fungible adversary. Per the possession-movie remit, each character in the film is given a sin or sins: lack of faith, lack of obedience, sexual peccadillos, or, in the case of documentary filmmaker Michael (Ionut Grama), just being a general douchebag. And each transgression is punished with a verve and thoroughness that would do a slasher proud. The demon inside gets its body count wholesale.
If you wanted to play devil's advocate, you could argue that the punishment of sin in this film does suggest a moral vision, one that Baldwin claims is absent in the forgetful ending of The Exorcist. For The Devil Inside, if you violate the rules of the church, modernity—in all its replicating, acidic glory—will eat your soul. That's a morally unequivocal message that even the vocally un-condomed Rick Santorum and his hordes of virtuous Iowa voters could get behind.
Alas, I suspect Rick Santorum would have been outraged maybe even slightly more than usual at The Devil Inside opening extravaganza I went to. The local radio station hosting the event had dressed two insouciant young men up as priests. Between tossing t-shirts into the audience and pleading with young woman to perform lap dances, the host handed the mic over to the false Fathers to deliver ersatz and yet somehow still uncomfortable jeremiads on the evils of temptation and the importance of free will. Catholicism and faith in this context are just another sub-vaudeville marketing gimmick, to be hawked like wares by a carnival barker or policies by a presidential candidate.
That's why there's no need to knock The Devil Inside for fulfilling expectations. On the contrary, its desire to be a perfect, soulless copy of itself is its most ingratiating feature. The Exorcist may have been hypocritical, but it's hard to lay that charge on The Devil Inside. After so many repeat performances, Ol' Scratch's pretense of profundity has worn so thin that it barely exists. When faith is devoured in this film, it's not a threat in earnest. It's a frivolous promise. The product you've purchased will destroy your ideals and violate your loved ones, guaranteed. What Americans know about evil is that evil, like McDonald's, reproduces itself, and that reproduction is a blast.