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Horror Film Review: The Devil’s Doorway

From Imdb: “When two priests investigate a miracle in an Irish home for unwed mothers in 1960, they discover that one of the residents is possessed by the devil.”

While my own work as a horror author tends toward the comedic, I’m a lifelong fan of horror in all its forms. There’s nothing I love more than clinging for dear life to my poor sweetie on a Saturday night and watching a tense, dark horror film with my heart *this* close to stopping from sheer terror. Horror film chest pains HURT SO GOOD. I have a theory I’ll die in a movie theater someday. And I’m totally fine with it. My doctor doesn’t agree.

Those nights have been fewer and fewer though, as it’s been tougher to find a horror film that lives up to my high expectations: having a story arc that feels satisfying, a fresh idea (or at least a fresh take on an old theme), a “monster” or threat (seen or unseen) that genuinely freaks me out, and an intense build of tension that doesn’t rely on jump scares or cheap gags. Also, I have a strong preference for films that include a woman’s perspective as a director, or delve into women’s themes, if not having a feminist point of view. Films that do all of the above are rare, that’s why Aislinn Clarke’s “The Devil’s Doorway” is such a breath of fresh air. Clarke is Ireland’s very first female horror director, and her debut does not disappoint. It’s also a win for female filmmakers and content creators everywhere.

The Devil’s Doorway is a fictional exposé of what went on in the “Magdalene laundries” of Ireland, a state-supported system where women who were seen as promiscuous or not fitting social norms were effectively turned into slaves and jailed in an asylum run by religious institutions. The film is also an overachiever; it’s a fresh take on not one but two tired, beat-up genres: the possession film, and the found footage film. After Blair Witch—a genuinely terrifying movie when it first came out—found footage films exploded, and, I hate to say it, but most of those found footage films aren’t worth watching. I think it’s because most found footage films quickly devolve into hours of boring faux-clever banter that doesn’t add to the story, and before anything interesting happens (those films usually take too long to wind up), I hate all the characters, and I’m not invested in the story at all. No one has made me care.

Beautifully written, The Devil’s Doorway does what most found footage films don’t—it gives us a good story via strong acting and strong dialog that also feels natural. Every word is necessary, none are wasted.

These lines gave me the chills:

“I believe in God, but doing this kind of work doesn’t bring you any closer to god.”

 

“Evil is around all around us, John. The Devil doesn’t have to hide.”

 

The Devil’s Doorway is also a study in fine acting. Performances delivered by Lalor Roddy (our lead priest, Father Thomas Riley), Helena Bereen (as the Mother Superior), and Lauren Coe (possessed woman) were exquisitely terrifying and deeply felt. Helena Bereen especially, as our stern Mother Superior, induced chills with her facial expressions alone. And that voice. Oh, that voice. Her voice alone made me sit up straight.

THAT FACE. Helena Bereen is chilling as the Mother Superior in The Devil’s Doorway

What also sets this found footage film apart is its strong art direction and camera work. From the very start, the lighting is perfectly dim and the mood is dark, setting the tone for the terrifying events to follow: the possession.

Before we dig deeper into the possession scenes, let me say that most Hollywood possession films don’t scare my anymore. They tend toward cliché and don’t do enough to build tension. In contrast, The Devil’s Doorway built up fear long before we got to the possession scenes, via the aforementioned camerawork and dialog. When the Devil finally shows up in this film, we have long been simmering in our own terror, and the payoff is visceral: a palpable, body-level fear that crawls all over your skin. In the heat of the possession scene, I remembered too late that I like to wear hoodies at horror movies to shield my eyes from the really scary parts, and there I was, sans hoodie, having forgotten it at home, and made to face the fear unshielded. Naked and afraid.

Ok, not really naked.

But very afraid.

How afraid?

Heart attack city.

My doctor hates me.

And my husband might also still hate me for the claw marks I left in his arms, when I clutched them in terror.

Oops.

I was also impressed by the sympathetic treatment of all characters in this film, even the “evil” Mother Superior, who, in self defense, sternly chastises our hero, Father Thomas Riley, for being part of the very patriarchal system that created these women’s homes in the first place. And while father Riley is indeed part of the system, he’s still our hero, fighting for the incarcerated women’s welfare. It’s a deeply nuanced film that doesn’t point any fingers. It doesn’t whack the viewer over the head with visual statements of how women in society are punished for being sexual or for not fitting social norms. We already know this, and we, the female viewers, are spared from an obvious rehashing of what we already know.

The Devil’s Doorway will be released in the United States TOMORROW, July 13, by IFC Midnight. See it! Support it! And spread the word.