If I’m being honest, in the wake of William Friedkin’s seminal 1973 classic, The Exorcist, I’ve always found exorcism movies to be incredibly samey and more than a little boring. It’s admittedly a hypocritical take, especially considering I’ll quite happily watch a slasher flick any day of the week, but Friedkin did such a phenomenal job, it kind of ruined the sub-genre for me ever since I first watched it many years ago – Exorcist III notwithstanding, of course.
However, when I saw the trailers for Prey For The Devil my interest perked up as it looked like this new bout of beelzebub-bothering might actually offer something new thanks to the premise of the notoriously patriarchal Vatican allowing a nun to join their exclusively male exorcist school in order to save the soul of a possessed little girl.
However, despite some nifty ideas (guys, come on, frickin’ exorcism school?!) and a couple of decently timed jump scares, Prey For The Devil ends up being mostly the same old devil’s doo-doo.
After suffering a harrowing childhood due to her possessed or schizophrenic mother, young nun Sister Ann works as a nurse at one of the many schools opened by the Catholic Church as a result of a global rise in demonic possession; but as she forms an emotional attachment with the various “patients” located on site, whatvshe really wants to do is get stuck in with the men folk and learn the finer arts of casting out demons. She believes that the method the church teaches lacks necessary empathy to reach the person trapped within and that in some, terminal cases, the victim may actually lean into the possession as punishment for some deep seated guilt that needs purging just as much as the demonic entity.
With the help and support of priestly professor Father Quinn and psychologist Dr. Peters, Sister Ann becomes the first woman to officially be taught to become an exorcist and it’s a good thing too because not only has a child patient named Emily that she’s bonded with taken a turn for the worse, but the demon that turned her mother abusive and eventually led her to commit suicide has targeted the child in order to get to her.
However, if being targeted by a demon isn’t bad enough, some disgruntled peers and her own eagerness to save lives may be enough to slow her roll as she teams up with fellow exorcist-in-training, Father Dante, to do some sneaky demon-busting on the side when it’s revealed that his sister is under an unholy influence. Despite all of this, the key to everything appears to be young Emily and the seismic repercussions that her parentage may hold…
So, to start with, for a possession movie that genuinely seems to be trying to put a new spin on a well worn sub-genre, Prey For The Devil plays all of the past, established, exorcism hits with scarred-faced little girls, ominously innocent looking bedrooms, raspy voices and a bunch of screaming priests taking up the lion’s share of the screen time. However, its setting and its choice of lead does mark it slightly separate from the legions of other crucifix wavers that populate the horror landscape – it’s just a shame that the movie can’t really decide what it wants to be and bounces between making a clumsy but heartfelt case for more women’s rights in religious and being a plain, generic, popcorn spiller that happily sacrifices depth for a quick “boo”.
Despite this, the setting of a full fledged exorcism school is admittedly badass, if a little weird as the fact that the movie doesn’t even try to play up any question of the reality of what’s occuring (demonic possession is a 110% proven fact in this movie – end of) which may initially be a little disorienting for those not of a devout nature. Still, the Catholics sure know how to set up a school and it crammed with neat touches like little individual, adorable exorcist kits and numerous wards/cells full of potentially possessed patients even though the whole thing feels a little poorly planned. Is it really wise to keep a large group of demonically possessed people in once location which itself is situated in a heavy populated area? And maybe this wouldn’t be such a worry if people throughout the movie wouldn’t constantly keep leaving the fucking cell doors open.
Yup, despite it’s fertile premise of a woman taking on both the patriarchy and Satan, Prey For The Devil is frustratingly content to let its characters simply be the usual type of horror movie idiots in order to lazily fast track a jump scare or add barely believable plot shift. It’s a shame because the concept has real social merit and Jacqueline Byers puts in a gustsy, likable performance and has some prime support in some savvily cast supporting roles that includes Virginia (Candyman) Madsen, Colin (Resident Evil) Salmon and Ben (The Unholy) Cross in his last role.
However, while the film glosses over some prime chances for some meaty drama (not to mention uncomfortably blurring the lines between demonic possession and actual mental illness), it does admittedly provide some nifty possession imagery such as Emily growing maggoty stigmatas and peering through the holes along with the standard wall crawling and digitally stretched mouths, but in its closing moments, Prey For The Devil reveals it’s true intentions with a stunningly obvious coda that seems to have the curious purpose to suggest that the producers might want the adventures of Sister Ann to continue much in the same vein as the The Conjuring franchise – a decision that feels as disappointing as it is cheap.
Another strange thing I noticed is that Hollywood now seems to have developed a curious pattern when it comes to genre projects that thrust women into the main roles as it share almost the exact same plot twist as this years The Woman King. With a spoiler warning for both flicks, the big reveal is that the young woman the female lead has formed an attachment to turns out to be the daughter they secretly abandoned so many years ago, therefore upping the emotional stakes. However, with The Woman King, it felt like a legitimate suprise, here, on the other hand, it only weirdly dilutes the heroine’s journey. What is the point of having everyone go on and on about our lead’s main power be having empathy to a total stranger in need when the final battle is for the soul of her long lost daughter and the reveal feels solely born from the need to quickly manufacture a quick and easy shorthand to explain away the movies message about healing guilt and self hatred. Maybe it’s just a side effect of a tumultuous production that commenced in 2020 (!) and saw the movie change directors and witnessed the sad passing of Cross after a battle with cancer.
It’s not awful, but it’s not exactly great either and while it may willingly exchange smarts for spooks, its watchable enough.
Just don’t expect it to possess your thoughts.