A demon who seeks a particular sparring partner forces church authorities to use a female exorcist in this OK supernatural melodrama from ‘The Last Exoricism‘ director Daniel Stamm.
Twelve years ago director Daniel Stamm was considered in some quarters as having revivified a subgenre with “The Last Exorcism.” That sleeper hit that was no classic, but it took itself seriously in the right ways, as put across by a good cast including the estimable (and still underused) Ashley Bell. Since 2014’s less successful “13 Sins,” he’s been occupied with episodic TV work. Unsurprisingly, his first feature in eight years marks a return to the general terrain that worked for him before.
“Prey for the Devil” won’t likely spur enthusiasm equal to Stamm’s breakout film, despite the relative novelty value of being built around a female exorcist — something not so unprecedented (at least onscreen) as billed, last year’s Veracruz-set “The Old Ways” being just one other example. Still, even if it falls short of being particularly memorable or scary, this is a decently entertaining possession potboiler. Without much competing horror product in the theatrical marketplace at present, it should do well enough with viewers seeking formulaic frights this Halloween weekend.
Robert Zappia’s script opens with onscreen text informing us that a purported boom in demonic possession cases worldwide has led the Catholic Church to open a “School of Exorcism” in Boston. That combination seminary, dormitory and hospital for the “afflicted” counts amongst its current students Sister Ann (Jacqueline Byers), who’s transferred here from a convent as a sole female trainee — though it is still officially against doctrine for a woman to perform any of an exorcist’s functions. Nonetheless she feels a calling in that direction, not least because she believes her own violently abusive late mother (Konya Ruseva) suffered from demons more literal than her diagnosed schizophrenia.
Sister Ann pushes against the Academy’s strictures, to the stern disapproval of one Sister Euphemia (Lisa Palfrey), but with varying degrees of encouragement from chief instructor Father Raymond (Colin Salmon) and the skeptically secular-minded Dr. Peters (Virginia Madsen). All must bend the rules a bit when Ann demonstrates an affinity for new patient Natalie (Posy Taylor), a 10-year-old whose family fears she is possessed — and she sure acts like it.
That our protagonist may be some kind of exorcizing prodigy is apparent when her fellow student and friend Father Dante (Christian Navarro) asks her to try relieving his similarly afflicted sister (Cora Kirk). But such addled souls are, it seems, just a means for “the Devil’s foot soldiers” to access what they really want to seize and destroy: Sister Ann, apparently.
Why is that? Well, because she’s “God’s chosen,” whatever that means. We never learn the name, history, or anything else distinguishing about the demon causing the mischief here: It’s simply a generic device to put characters through the same mill of contortions, stunts, makeup and other grotesqueries Linda Blair endured half a century ago. (No pea soup course this time out, though.)
William Friedkin’s original “Exorcist” was terrifying because it was so soundly rooted in the real world, populated by people no less horrified by what was happening than by the fact that it even could happen. They tangibly felt the horror of rationality pulled out from under them like a rug. But movies like “Prey for the Devil” (which is getting released as “The Devil’s Light” in some territories) reside in a world of genre tropes. Demonic possession is no longer a mindblowing aberration, but an accepted path to familiar jump scares and fantasy FX. There’s no whiff of originality here, nor any sincerity that runs deeper than instructing the actors not to kid the material.
Still, those rather good actors do indeed keep a straight face, as does the film overall. And Stamm’s jump scares aren’t bad, as they go. He hasn’t made a very suspenseful movie, but he’s avoided both dullness and unintentional laughs. This Bulgaria-shot production would, however, benefit from richer atmospherics: Despite adequate design contributions and a widescreen format, Denis Crossan’s cinematography has a somewhat plain, televisual look.
Byers is likable enough to make her heroine one we wouldn’t mind seeing reprised. But it remains to be seen whether this first outing will linger in anyone’s memory long enough to generate the sequel we’re tipped (before a rote “boo!” blackout) would be something in the thematic realm of “Sister Exorcist 2: Vatican Boogaloo.”