'Prey for the Devil' review: A terribly dull exorcism
Courtesy of Lionsgate
Walking into “Prey for the Devil,” I was hopeful, perhaps intrigued that an exorcism movie timed for Halloween could move the needle. It’s been an exceptional year for the medium, and the sub-genre of demonic possession thrillers was due for a hit. After all, western culture was built on some form of Christianity and the idea of Heaven and Hell, so there’s a reason these movies keep getting produced (plus the economical budgets make them profitable after opening weekend). Alas, “Prey for the Devil” offers cheap thrills, the occasional jump scare, but mostly mediocrity in the form of blissful ignorance. Do you believe in the church and what it stands for? Do you absolve yourself of sinful trauma? If not, well, according to this movie, you’re likely going to be snatched by a demon in the underworld!
Director Daniel Stamm and writers Robert Zappia, Todd R. Jones and Earl Richey Jones attempt to challenge conservative norms as it pertains to Catholicism, but the blatant hypocrisy in relation to women and the choices they make (every character who is either possessed or challenged in this film is female) leaves a bitter aftertaste. Who’s to say if this was the filmmakers’ intentions, but it certainly reads that way. For example, a pivotal scene midway through shows a priest performing an exorcism on his sister whom, according to him, is possessed because of the trauma from having an abortion, not that the child was a result of her being raped.
On its surface, the premise of “Prey for the Devil” sparks curiosity: it takes place at a school of exorcism in Boston which is endowed by the Catholic Church. At the school, young priests take rigorous courses on how to ward off demons and cleanse the soul. In this world, people suffering from possession are stored away in an underground bunker, constantly surveilled by a medical team and when the illness is no longer treatable, the Church sends in experienced personnel. Watching priests gear up for an exorcism is easily the best (and funniest) convention the writers cook-up as it plays like a scene from “John Wick” where the assassins get ready for a showdown. Obviously, the priests are brandishing holy water and crosses and not AK-47s and butcher knives, but the thought crossed my mind.
Trying to combat the cultural norm that exorcisms are performed by men, the film’s protagonist, Sister Ann (Jacqueline Byers) is determined to make history and learn the craft herself. With the inclusion of a female gaze, you might think “Prey for the Devil” will evolve into a story around feminist empowerment, but Stamm continuously reinforces traditional ideals that only devout Catholic teachings can vanquish evil. It’s the playbook she must abide by in order to save a young, terminally possessed little girl named Natalie (newcomer Posy Taylor), where even minor deviations from the strategy can lead to life sustaining injuries. In other words, it’s the Catholic way or the highway.
It’s a bummer “Prey for the Devil” has such underlying, coded messaging in its DNA and makes jarring, and borderline offensive, juxtapositions between possession and mental illness because there are elements worth appreciating. Namely Byers and Posy’s performances and the attempt at allowing women a chance to break new ground. The thought is there and that counts for something, but when horror fans already have a wealth of quality, less propagandic, options heading into the final spooky weekend of the season, it puts “Prey for the Devil'' low on the totem pole. Really, it’ll be forgotten less than a week from now.
PREY FOR THE DEVIL is now playing in theaters.