Most horror fans can recall with vivid detail the first time they watched William Brent Bell’s 2012 film The Devil Inside. Maybe it was a birthday screening with friends long erased from social circles. Perhaps an unruly theatergoer hurled their sticky, syrupy soda at the screen in disgust over its infamous “ending” text card. It’s been almost a decade since horror fans expressed outrage over a website link that acts as the film’s payoff finale, and judging by responses to the mere mention of its name, nobody’s forgotten or forgiven such a sin. The question is, 10 years removed, has distance softened the blow?
As an exorcism mockumentary at the height of found footage hysteria, The Devil Inside isn’t that unfamiliar. A camera operated by documentarian Michael Schaefer (Ionut Grama) follows Isabella Rossi (Fernanda Andrade) to Italy. Isabella hopes to record her first encounter with her estranged mother, Maria Rossi (Suzan Crowley), a resident of Centrino Mental Hospital in Rome. The reason? Maria murdered three disciples of the cloth in 1989 during an exorcism and remains under Vatican oversight, lost in a bureaucratic system that demands 100% demonic proof to act on divine exterminations. Isabella hopes to expose Maria’s innocence—with the help of renegade exorcists, Fathers David Keane (Evan Helmuth) and Ben Rawlings (Simon Quarterman)—to change the church’s and public’s stance on unearthly possession.
Bell’s usage of first-person camera perspectives brings us face-to-face with bone-crackly exorcism horrors, notably replicated by contortionist Bonnie Morgan. Religion becomes a coverall for conspiracies about hidden possession victims, ignored psych ward patients and an unwillingness to risk reputations versus battling blasphemous evils. There are flourishes of a better movie when David attempts to drown an infant mid-baptism or when Maria hypnotizes Isabella with a sinister rendition of “Itsy Bitsy Spider.” On a rewatch, minus finale frustrations, it’s possible to acknowledge the generic but passable horror intentions behind Bell’s production.
The problem, still as egregious as shaky-cam overuse in the found footage subgenre, is that unforgivable outro decision.
Ben smuggles a now-possessed Isabella outside hospital walls in Michael’s sedan. She awakens, attacking Ben and distracting Michael while behind the wheel. Satan’s scalding taunts pour from her mouth, chastising Ben’s past actions. Isabella strangles Michael briefly and passes the devilish infection like a virus. Michael swerves into oncoming traffic, colliding head-on with another vehicle. The passengers tumble as metal turns end-over-end, then the screen washes in darkness. Words appear, and we’re left with the following: “For more information about the ongoing investigation visit www.TheRossiFiles.com.”
It’s an unpopular choice that reflects horror cinema’s then-relevant obsession with being more than just a theatrical experience. Cloverfield (2008) proved how marketing cycles could generate legacies, using viral online methods to drive theories and hype without a single trailer. Sequels like Return To House On Haunted Hill (2007) and Final Destination 3 (2006) tried their hand at interactive navigational cinema on home releases, where viewers could choose their own adventures (the movie pauses, two options present themselves, and the remote holder would select a direction for the “custom” narrative to follow). Studios clamored to upsell 3D tickets (an extra $3 – $4 a pop) through titles like My Bloody Valentine 3D (2009), Saw 3D (2010) and Shark Night 3D (2011). Horror tastemakers desperately kept trying to reinvent how audiences engaged with and consumed movies both on and beyond the screen, so much so that Bell’s read-all-about-it ending appears almost rational in hindsight.
The prime issue? Neither The Devil Inside nor its janky early-2010s website was monumental enough to disrupt any evergreen cinematic models.
Thanks to Wayback Machine archives you can still visit “the Rossi Files,” littered with YouTube embeds that feature “lost” surveillance footage and home videos. Evidence points towards Isabella’s possible possession years prior, same for Maria, or at least the presence of a Tobylike entity pulled from the scripted pages of Paranormal Activity. Nothing expands—considering the teases towards a possible sequel with Isabella on the loose—and the creative direction fails to stick its gimmick’s landing as other links wastefully lead to throwaway bios for Father Ben, Father David and filmmaker Michael. There was an opportunity for The Devil Inside to showcase how webisodes or internet additives could enhance a film’s overall longevity, now forgotten because said opportunity begot overwhelming failure.
Cloverfield remains the golden standard of viral Hollywood marketing because its strategies emphasized user engagement and communication. Puzzles, audio snippets and timed reveals created an environment where hype could thrive, as dedicated forums began filling with Cloverfield chatter. The Devil Inside’s medium transition lacks interactivity, since its made-overnight blog only offers uninteresting explainers that could be deduced in minutes. There’s nothing worth prolonged discussion or curiosity, just additional information plopped onto an unappealing skeleton domain that seems like an intern’s afterthought. At the horizon of “screen life” techno-horrors like Unfriended or The Den, and after viral methodologies had already broken the studio mold, The Devil Inside was stuck trying to capitalize on a virtual moment it didn’t comprehend.
Clicking into its site’s offer to Discuss the Case with Others raises the largest red flag. The message board allows users to post comments and talk about what they’ve just witnessed—clearly a fabricated movie—as if Maria Rossi’s possession is based on truth. It’s almost like The Devil Inside promoters prayed viewers would miss legal admissions of fakeness during the credits. Paranormal Activity fooled many Google surfers who searched to locate proof of Katie and Micah’s supernatural tragedy, and part of me thinks the team behind The Devil Inside banked on audiences being fooled twice.
Hilariously, the public took no unholy bait.
Despite a few plant comments that feel posted by inside instigators, most are trolls laughing at the audacity of anyone believing what they witnessed in a theater is reality. “The movie is fake didnt u c r u blind,” taunts the esteemed user known as snizzle jizzle. “Y’all realize this is what they want. Your all possessed with stupidity. The movie is fake,” proclaims Kyle. “All of this stuff had to be true, it’s not like you can fake all the crazy,” suggests Avia—one of those suspicious believer comments—who is met with a range of dumbfounded to mean-spirited retorts. “As a haunted house actor, I have to say that you’re an idiot for believing that it’s not possible to ‘fake that much crazy,’” reminds Scrooge in very-online fashion. How anyone thought The Devil Inside could get away with such an underbaked scheme—on the internet—is foolhardy at best.
I don’t fault any attempt to evolve the way viewers interact with media or the ambition to redefine cinematic boundaries. Still, The Devil Inside fell miles short of conquering its challenge. A critical decimation of 5% on Rotten Tomatoes didn’t spoil its successful $101 million box office rake on $1 million spent—although reviews tell the tale of furious journalists who felt pranked by an unthinkable “lazy” finisher. Seething audiences weren’t pleased either and blessed the false horror idol with an “F” Cinemascore, which only 22 titles in history can boast as of 2020. Metacritic heaps on the harshness at a paltry 18%, best represented by A.V. Club scribe Nathan Rabin’s goose-egg-zero review: “The hilariously convoluted thriller contains all the elements for a wacky parody of exorcism movies, except a sense of humor about itself: The Devil Inside never acknowledges its innate ridiculousness, so the laughs are unintentional.”
While dedicated crews poured fake blood and strenuous perspiration into a modest yet underwhelming experience, that website is some throwaway child’s play. It’s innovation of the cheapest degree, misinformed as to why similar tactics previously found success. Anyone can upload content to the internet—it’s about what value and ingenuity said content brings that grabs attention. Videogames like 2021’s Inscryption have tested these waters to sweeter results, hiding horror-adjacent internet secrets throughout playthroughs. Neither “value” nor “ingenuity,” unfortunately, justifies why The Devil Inside forwent a traditional third-act culmination versus the brick-wall stoppage that will forever be known around these parts as “The Rossi Files Outrage.” What could have been is all too tantalizing a fantasy; what exists will eventually be overwritten by countless films hereafter that showcase internet literacy beyond that of a Wikipedia article.
Matt Donato is a Los Angeles-based film critic currently published on SlashFilm, Fangoria, Bloody Disgusting, and anywhere else he’s allowed to spread to the gospel of Demon Wind. He is also a member of the Hollywood Critics Association. Definitely don’t feed him after midnight.