The rite of exorcism has been strictly performed only by Catholic priest; a decree enforced by the Church for more than a century. At the Saint Michael the Archangel School of Exorcism in Boston, Massachusetts, Ann, a young nurse caring for suspected possessed individuals, finds herself bound personally to a demon from her childhood. An opened-minded Father invites her to study exorcism as an observer only, but when Ann is able to connect to beyond the demon of a terminally possessed little girl, her theory on exorcisms goes against Church doctrine. Unable to officially help the little girl without agitating trouble, Ann performs back-alley exorcisms to prove her theories correct, bring her findings to the Church, prepare herself against a demon hungry for her soul, and save the life of a girl bound for transport to the Vatican where she will surely expire. Ann’s past and present collide in a battle between light and dark with a young girl’s life hanging in the balance.
Possession and exorcism movies have become rather formulaic in the last two decades with more than most being derivative as surpassing the bar on William Friedkin’s “The Exorcist” has been an uphill battle, but, in my opinion, director Daniel Stamm has figured out a path to make the wavering subgenre emerge from the depths of the Netherworld and take possession with a different angle. “Prey for the Devil” is a terrifying tale by screenwriting partners and brothers Earl Richey Jones and Todd R. Jones, the first horror work from the “Rio” and “Johnson Family Vacation” writers, and the script, under the original working title of “The Devil’s Light, is designed by “Halloween H20” co-writer, Frank Zappia. The Hamburg, Germany-born Stamm returns to the demonically charged, demon possession genre having found moderate success with fans in his 2010 pseudo-doc/found footage film “The Last Exorcism.” More than a decade later, Stamm is still sending young girls up climbing up the corner of walls in his latest exorcism themed entry produced by the Jones brothers, Jeff Levine, Jessica Malanphy, and Paul Brooks under production companies Gold Circle Films (“Slither,” “Blood Creek”) and Lionsgate (“Saw” franchise).
“Prey for the Devil” has an embattled protagonist facing two opposing fronts – one fowl demon hellbent on devouring the Godsent Ann from the inside out and one the Church solely for being a woman wanting to practice what’s been appointed as a man’s vocation. Jacqueline Byers has been penned to play the curious and targeted nun and the “Bad Samaritan” actress doesn’t disappoint being the center of attention without overstepping conceitedly into Ann’s habit. The story never feels like it’s Ann, paralleling similar to the overall theme of looking past the surface level demon and understanding the person’s state of consciousness that might have invited the demon inside. Byers evokes more curiosity of a woman drawn to exorcism because of her own past involving an abusive mother (Koyna Ruseva) who, when listening to the voice inside her head, would hurt child Ann with a tough tugging, decorative comb. In Ann’s way is the Church represented by Sister Euphemia (Lisa Palfrey, “The Feast”), Father Quinn (Colin Salmon, “Resident Evil”), and Cardinal Matthews, played by the late Ben Cross (“Exorcist: The Beginning”) who would succumb to cancer after the completion of his role. With a trifecta of solid performances, the Church opposition lacks fortitude in coming down hard on Ann for not only taking a shining toward a priest’s appointed aptitude, but also for performing an unauthorized exorcism on a desperate priest’s sister. Her desperate priest friend, Father Dante (Christian Navarro, “13 Reasons Why“), is a sympathetic friend without much skin in the game of sticking his white collared neck out for Ann. “Prey for the Devil” introduces the teenage actress Posy Taylor with a chillingly consumed Natalie who has a strong semblance to Regan when demonized to the fullest and in a while gown. The film rounds out the cast with Nicholas Ralph, Keith Bartlett, and “Candyman’s” Virginia Madsen as the psychiatrist using science to disprove possession.
“Prety for the Devil” sets the stage strong by defining from the very opening credits that women were forbidden to perform the rite of exorcism. There’s even back support from Sister Euphemia giving her glares of disapproval and a library that limits the access to priest approved restricted texts, but Ann slides into the realm of exorcisms when little push back that begs the question why no other nun ever attempted to enroll in the demon extraction rituals course? Perhaps being set in the permissive Boston and not the draconian Vatican might have something to do with it, but the theme of inequality is ultimately suppressed and dispelled from the story, leaving Sister Ann to face a one-front battle against the unholy creatures of the underworld inhabiting those closest to her. For supernatural special effects, the computer visual imagery renders a meticulously blended and seamless compositional execution from a team under VF/X supervisor Laurent Spillemaecker (“Overlord,” “Martyrs’). The mesh of reality and virtual reality becomes indistinguishable to the point where good scares scenes come about as a result. There are plenty physical effects that are joint into a pivot from the visuals and the motions don’t have an ounce of clunkiness to them. While we touched upon the theme of inequality of women in the Church, “Prey for the Devil’s” other theme revolves around a fairly common one in films today – guilt or shame. The new angle the story provides ceases to look at possession not from a demon focused level but to reach in and try to convince the person within that they’re at fault for whatever it is they grieve in shame for and to tell them whatever the case may be, no fault is put on them. Novel enough to be interesting, guilt and shame will forever be vilified and demonized, literally, in most horror. For “Prey for the Devil,” the element of anguish proves to be more powerful than most who utilize it, capitalizing in on the power of being overcome by it, and turning it into a nasty, soul-swallowing distemper one may not come back from. This is why Virginia Madsen’s psychiatrist character exists, to provide that presence of psychosis and other mental disabilities that sometimes appear to be demonic in nature to the naked, untrained eye. The story does well to create an alternate universe around this idea by having the Church admit patients with undiagnosed disorders as they could be more than what meets the eye.
Not quite the nunsploitation one might be hoping for, but “Prey for the Devil” envisages self-conscious emotions as a wide-open door for pain, suffering, and unmitigated self-punishment. Lionsgate Home Entertainment presents “Prety for the Devil” on a high definition, 1080p, AVC encoded Blu-ray, DVD, and digital code release with a widescreen 2.39:1 aspect ratio. With tight quarters of Saint Michaels, a fictional location setup from Sofia University in Palo Alto, California, the anamorphic lens compacts hallways and auditoriums cylindrically, offering more space than actuality, but the format doesn’t necessarily fit this type of a film that offers no vast landscape or much depth or long shots. Not much else to say negatively about the digital image that offers a darker, low contrasted tone. The audio track has three audio options: an English Dolby Atmos, a Spanish 5.1 Dolby Audio, and a French 5.1 Dolby Audio. For the English Atmos, the format fully immerses the viewer into a complete surround sound experience with each crescendo jump scares as well as in the middle of a good versus evil quarrel. Crisp and spatial, Atmos on the release takes advantage of the infrasound to build tension where it might be lost in other audio formats and also italicizes the ambient composition into the Nathan Barr’s (“From Dusk till Dawn 3: The Hangman’s Daughter”) classical and haunting lullaby scores. The special features include an audio commentary with director Daniel Stamm and principal lead actress Jacqueline Byers, a 41-minute featurette with in-depth and retrospective interviews with cast and crew Possessed: Creating Prey for the Devil, Nathan Barr’s discussion on creating the score for the film A Lullaby of Terror, exposing the film’s visuals effects The Devil’s Tricks, a feature-length, nearly 2-hour roundtable read of the original first screenplay draft from the cast, and an Exorcist and Psychologist discussion about the possession with screenwriter Robert Zappia mediating (or maybe even moderating) the comments. The physical release comes in a traditional Blu-ray snapper case with artwork cover pictured with one of film’s rememberable scenes. Inside is the digital code slip and outside the snapper is sheathed in a cardboard slipcover with the identical cover art. Possession-exorcism films are just as tired as the zombie subgenre, but “Prey for the Devil” possesses symbolic and doleful undertones inside a superbly acted and an intriguing alternate universe story that’s not too far from the truth in one of the Church’s more confrontational, as well as controversial, methods to battle evil.