starring Lalor Roddy, Ciaran Flynn, Helena Bereen, Lauren Coe
screenplay by Martin Brennan, Michael B. Jackson, Aislinn Clarke
directed by Aislinn Clarke
by Walter Chaw Aislinn Clarke's hyphenate debut The Devil's Doorway is a found-footage concept shot on 16mm and set in a Magdalene Asylum circa 1960. Two priests are dispatched from the Vatican to investigate statues of the Virgin Mary that are apparently weeping blood. "Type O negative, female, pregnant," says wizened, world-weary Father Thomas (Lalor Roddy, a real discovery), who finds himself in the midst of a crisis of faith. It won't be a miracle, he's sure. When his young charge and de facto cameraman Father John (Ciaran Flynn) asks him why not, Thomas responds, "Because it never is." He's Fathers Merrin and Karras, both, from The Exorcist: the man of the cloth who can wield his faith, and the man of the cloth who wonders if he's lost his faith entirely. Thomas--dubbed "doubting" by John, naturally--expresses his rage and disgust at the asylums, also called "laundries," in Ireland where young "fallen" women were sent to hide the shame of unwanted pregnancies, nervous disorders, and other socially-objectionable "maladies" from judgmental neighbours. He's unimpressed, then, by cold, patrician Mother Superior (Helena Bereen), who lacks nuance in the way she sees her charges. And when things become inexplicable, as they are wont to do in haunted asylums, there's something like relief for Thomas to discover that if there's no God, there might at least be the Devil.
It's an evergreen subject but the timing of this film seems especially fitting with the revelation, as I write this, that more than 300 Catholic priests abused thousands of children in the state of Pennsylvania since 1947. Obviously not the Church's first sex scandal, it's nonetheless the largest broken in the United States, and it's heartbreaking--and infuriating, the more so for how unsurprising it is. One problem is the offending priests; the bigger is the institution of the Church, which conspired for decades to prevent the attorney general's report from ever seeing the light of day, shuffling monsters from diocese to diocese and even promoting some to positions of greater power. The tagline for The Devil's Doorway was funnier yesterday: "This Is Not Found Footage. It Has Been Suppressed by the Catholic Church for the Last 58 Years." The observation is spot-on. Through a close friend, I've learned the term "clericalism"--I take it to mean "everywhere there are men in powerful positions, there is abuse and a mechanism to protect the abusers." I'm not a believer, but I do hope I'm wrong. I'd love to think these men will go to Hell.
So on the one level, The Devil's Doorway deals with the institution of Catholicism and how its power in Ireland until very recently (the last Magdalene Asylum closed in 1996, after 200 years of socially-sanctioned abuse) created an environment of secrecy in the name of false, sadistic piety. On another level, it speaks to the horror that men visit upon women and the ways that women are indoctrinated into a patriarchal culture until they're participating in their own subjugation--to the point of literally oppressing other women. There are layers of complexity to the possession story at the centre of the film, as Thomas and John discover a pregnant girl, Kathleen (Lauren Coe), shackled in her filth to a bed, raving and violent and, occasionally, speaking in Attic Greek to the Fathers. If the Devil is in fact possessing Kathleen, well, he's not the only one who thinks he has a stake in her body. Thomas demands the nuns free her, but when they do, Kathleen takes a chunk out of a sister standing nearby. It's a fascinating conundrum: of course the nuns are monsters and this practice of spiriting away young girls for being young girls is sadistic; but of course a young woman possessed by the Devil should probably be shackled to the bed. Thomas is unmoved. He says that the only devil is the fact of the Laundries, and Clarke gives us a beautiful, dreamlike 16mm vision of Hell as a roomful of young women bent over the steam of their labours. If young Regan in The Exorcist is a stand-in for all the innocence that adults are incapable of defending, here Kathleen is the metaphor for how men in the cowl of religion try to control a woman's sexuality through every means available.
The found-footage approach is often criticized, but I love it when it's used well and reasonably. In The Devil's Doorway, the conceit is effective and smart. Images flit by on the periphery. A late chase down stairs has the camera just capture a glimpse of something ahead before it disappears out of frame. There's the thought that John can see more than his camera can, and that's terrifying to consider. The Blair Witch Project does something similar and it's why that film is still, for all the backlash it endured, the most influential horror film of the past twenty years. Dutch angles only make sense in found-footage and here they're used to magnify the seriousness of the moment. What happens when the creator loses control of his creation? In this context, a dropped camera has multiple meanings. I laughed when Father John tries in vain to shoot the source of a child's laughter and footsteps. It reminded me of when we stayed at the Stanley Hotel and my kids tried to sneak up on ghosts with their cell phones. More, the scenes of possession feel fresh through a 16mm perspective: dangerous again after decades of familiarity. Helping are the performances by Flynn and, especially, Roddy, who manages to hold several thoughts in his head at the same time. I don't know anything about the actor, but he's equally adept with brimstone as he is with melancholia. He is the contradiction of the Church, after all: the good man in a bad organization; the powerful man who is powerless; the faithful man without his faith. Someone speculates at some point about his parentage and Father Thomas says, sadly, "that may be." He has one fight left in him. The horror of The Devil's Doorway is that it's one he's unlikely to win.