Through all the terrors of the past two years, it’s hard to believe that the horror film has proven the most enduring genre at the post pandemic box office. Marvel have had more disappointments in the past two years than in the preceding twelve combined. All the while, the likes of Candyman, Old and Smile have proven consistent and bankable hits. Pray for the Devil is exactly of their ilk. It is, put simply, a creaky and unholy preposterous, Exorcist lite pretender. One that boasts box ticking attributes. Attractive young leads, psychological plot notes and an appealingly frugal runtime. It’s all there. To boot, the ending begs for the birth of a franchise.
A lack of convolution really does work in the favour of the film, which comes penned by Halloween: H20’s Robert Zappia. The story is concise, paired down and, by default, surprisingly memorable. Jacqueline Byers is the oddly liberal Sister Ann. She’s a New England nun, employed by the Catholic Church to support a cohort of wannabe exorcising priests in tackling a global rise of demonic possessions. Despite a ban on nuns performing the rite of exorcism, there’s something about Ann that stands her apart. Fathers Quinn and Dante (Colin Salmon and Christian Navarro) spot it straight away, even as the Frollo-esque Cardinal Matthews wrinkles his cassock.
Being a woman – the film falls stigmata first into this trap, despite apparent feminist intent – Sister Ann believes in connecting with the emotions of her possessed patients is the best root to rooting out the rot. Her male counterparts are more concerned with theological theory. As such, when she first meets the troubled young Natalie (newcomer Posy Taylor), Ann reaches not for the nearest Gideon’s bible but into the girl’s heart and soul. The connection is immediate and pursued by Ann, against the warnings of her superiors.
All that follows writes itself and unfolds with little by way of diversion, bar a blindingly obvious plot twist as the final act looms. Byers’ performance is, to this end, note perfect. She carries the film’s darker corners with impressive sincerity but softens its less sturdy edges with a knowing twinkle to the eye. Even in the face of unlikely choices and Lara Croft visual stylings, Byers feels legitimately present in the story and grounded in reality. Only in the grand finale does she suffer at the hand of banal prosthetics. Not that any would fare better in scenes captured with an ill conceived approach to lighting. Denis Crossan shoots with a generally adequate lens but fudges an already dark final battle by turning out the lights entirely. It’s impossible to follow.
More successful are the viscerally physical quality of the film’s effects. While it would be fair to decry Pray for the Devil’s excessive familiarly with similarly themed predecessors, director Daniel Stamm still nails his fair share of striking set pieces. A young girl’s suffocation by strands of her own hair is as memorable as a woman’s aborted baby resurfacing in her stomach proves gnarly. It’s all more academically engrossing than actually scary but there’s some appeal in that.
Where the film loses said appeal, by contrast, is in its crass handling of mental health. Much as was the Achilles heel of M. Night Shyamalan’s Split, equating acute mental illness with devilish possession feeds into a dated and unhelpful narrative.
None would seriously suggest that persons with schizophrenia are possessed by Satan but the association is enough to suggest a diagnosis of such makes one inherently dangerous. Even the setting of the film is tiresome in this sense. Sister Ann very literally works in an institution designed to establish whether its patients are unwell or just plain demonic. They’re all locked behind a double sealed door regardless.
If we are to pray for another devil, let such laziness be exorcised.
One thought on “Pray for the Devil | Review”
Yeah, definitely agree with you about this movie. I personally didn’t think it was as bad as some are seeing it, but it was definitely not was promised in the film’s marketing campaign. Had some good nuances and the production quality was solid, but it was just lazy writing that didn’t know where to go and becomes predictable and slightly half-baked.