Typically, I’m not a fan of the demonic possession movie. At this point, a lot of the tropes are overplayed and it’s hard to do something unique with the subgenre. Paul Tremblay’s novel A Head Full of Ghosts is an exception that I’ll make, but the book is also hyper-aware of the subgenre’s history. That said, I do recommend The Devil’s Doorway, a rather unnerving film released by IFC Midnight and directed by Aislinn Clarke.
Set in 1960 at a home for unwed mothers, the film follows two priests who have been sent there to document a “miracle,” a Virgin Mary statue that bleeds from its eyes. Echoing The Exorcist, the film has two priests who are on the opposite sides of the belief spectrum. The young Father John (Ciaran Flynn) is a true believer, while the older Father Thomas (Lalor Ruddy) is a skeptic and is even called a “Doubting Thomas” at one point by his counterpart. Father Thomas reminded me of The Exorcist’s Damien Karras (Jason Miller), who was not initially convinced that Regan (Linda Blair) was possessed by a demon until the film’s final act. Father Thomas does not believe that evil takes a supernatural form. Rather, he sees evil in everyday human actions
This is one of the most interesting concepts of the film. We see the “evil” Father Thomas speaks of play out as the film progresses. The nuns, especially Mother Superior (Helena Bereen), abuse the women, especially physically. Yet, there is little faith to be had in the institution of the Catholic Church to remedy the situation. Early in the film, Mother Superior tells the priests that the Church will merely hide the abuses that the priests witness. They’ll sweep it under the rug as they’ve done with other scandals. Father Thomas knows that she’s right, and it’s probably another reason why he’s simply there to do a job, to prove that there is some rational explanation for the bleeding Virgin Mary statute. He does want to report the abuses, but he knows that it will most likely be fruitless.
Once the priests meet Kathleen (Lauren Coe), a pregnant teenager who the nuns have shackled and banished to the basement, the scares really ramp up. Some of them are typical of demonic possession movies, including levitation, contorted bodies, and ancient languages spoken in a gravelly demonic voice, but because the film employs the found footage technique, some of the scares are unique. For instance, when Father John films some of the events and loses light or the camera cuts off and then on again, it allows for unsettling close-ups of Kathleen in full-blown demon mode. This is the only praise I will give the found footage technique because I think it has been overdone at this point. How many shaky camera shots can we take?
The introduction of Kathleen and the supernatural events that unfold, including exploding Virgin Mary statues, allows for the growth of Father Thomas’ character, which is again somewhat similar to Damien Karass’ character arc. It causes Father Thomas’ seemingly sturdy belief system to be shaken and questioned, which makes him more vulnerable and human. Yet, beyond the film’s supernatural elements, there is something to be said about the everyday evil that Father Thomas speaks of early in the film, the fact that these young women are abused and forced to spend hours upon hours scrubbing floors, washing sheets, or doing other remedial tasks instead of being allowed an education. Even more horrifying is the introduction of Kathleen, with cuts and lashes on her arms and shackles on her wrists. The nuns see the unwed, pregnant women as sinners, undeserving of mercy or compassion. This, indeed, is evil.
Overall, The Devil’s Doorway is a solid entry in the demonic posession subgenre. It addresses belief and skepticism in an intelligent way. Some of its images are generally creepy and haunting, and perhaps, most importantly, it uses the trope of demonic possession to address issues of gender and mortality.
The Devil’s Doorway is currently in theaters and VOD.
Side note: I encourage anyone interested in this film to read this interview with Aislinn Clarke in which she talks about the real “Magdalane Laundries” in Ireland that inspired this film. Pretty scary and eye-opening bit of history.