AND THEN THERE WAS NUN...
Prey for the Devil (15)
Director: Daniel Stamm
Screenplay: Robert Zappia
Starring: Jacqueline Byers, Virginia Madsen, Colin Salmon
Review: David Stephens
Before it got its current punny name, this film went into production in 2019 as The Devil's Light (Is he? Must be on a low-carb diet). The original screenplay from Halloween H20: 20 Years Later scribe Robert Zappia was due to have been filmed by James Hawes (Penny Dreadful) but eventually went (perhaps appropriately) to the director of The Last Exorcism, Daniel Stamm. With an interesting genre-experienced cast including Colin Salmon, Virginia Madsen, and the late Ben Cross, it suffered many delays due to obvious worldwide reasons. After umpteen reschedules, it's here in UK cinemas with a massive promotional push for Halloween. So much so that people using public transport in larger cities will be more than familiar with the hairy-eyed nun on the posters. Is it any good, though? *Adopts William Shatner's voice" Well, that's what we're here to find out.
Opening with a therapy session, we meet committed nun Sister Ann (played by Jaqueline Byers). She was a victim of sustained child abuse (which centred on combing her hair roughly for some bizarre reason) and was routinely terrorised by her mother. Ann believes that her mother was possessed, which eventually led to her becoming a Bride of Christ in later years after her misspent youth. She now works as a nursing assistant in an exorcism academy (?!), which the Vatican is funding after a dramatic rise in demonic possessions (?!!). Although nuns are forbidden from performing sanctioned exorcisms, Ann finds herself drawn to the profession and teachings, which could place her very soul in jeopardy.
To all intents and purposes, this should have been called "Exorcism Academy: Her First Assignment". Don't expect (m)any laughs though… or sequels, judging by the first wave of reviews. Because, despite a decent cast and with Stamm directing, it's pretty uninspired and relies on basic jump-scares to carry the bulk of the story. Despite all the backstory, the characters are paper-thin and uninspiring, and there's nothing here that you haven't seen before in similar films. Oddly, the story works on the assumption that becoming possessed is akin to catching the flu. Its means that along with the training classes, there is a high-tech medical ward in the academy where patients are "observed" to see if they need the rite (like a booster shot!) or should be released. It's genuinely treated like a terminal disease.
This makes the film feel more like a "plucky-underdog-medical-student-takes-on-the-stuffy-establishment" movie than a horror flick. The fact that there are "training montages" and confrontations with cranky authority figures underlines this, as does a moment where "students" relax outside and discuss the demonic confrontation they've just had as if they've aced a trigonometry exam! It's all normalised to a hysterical degree, and yet it's played completely straight. We've also got the female empowerment angle, where Sister Ann challenges the status quo for personal reasons. A bit like "G.I. Jane" with rosaries.
The annoying thing is that there's actually an intriguing idea buried amongst all the tropes. Sister Ann maintains that the exorcism rite itself is fundamentally flawed. Whereas the Catholic church focuses on arcane text and attempts to expel demons, she thinks they should change the ritual by practising empathy and emotionally connecting with the victim. Sadly this is brushed aside in terms of a predictable narrative and a central plot twist that ABSOLUTELY EVERYBODY will see coming from a mile away. There are occasional good effects and some decent images. The climax shows Sister Ann in priestly garb with her long golden locks making her look like she has just stepped out of a Da Vinci fresco. This is an intentional call back to renaissance paintings and a previous reference to the "real life" female exorcist Catherine of Siena. Other decent sequences include stigmata with maggots and demonic attacks with violently flashing lighting.
Most of the time though, it's achingly predictable. Jump-scares are frequent and uninspired, with characters repeatedly gurning in the Reagan MacNeil style. Stamm even rips himself off by having a possessed character climb the walls and sit in the ceiling corner like The Last Exorcism (and a dozen other films). The obsession with hair is all pretty weird in general, especially as J-horror has done that to death now. However, the idea of being gagged by your own tresses is always a bit disturbing, although we do think that the follicle in the eyeball scene was done much better in Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones. Otherwise, you've seen everything before in better exor-movies. The conclusion is extremely guessable, particularly as some foreshadowing is laughably overdone. And it also adds a final stinger that is illogical and only seems to be there to add a dramatic ending that just isn't needed. In summary, it's not badly made, although we could do without some of the awful dialogue. It's a bearable choice for the spooky season, just nowhere near being the best one…