Ain’t That a Shame

Prey for the Devil

by Hope Madden

Shame preys on Catholic girls. It’s guilt that does us in. Just when you think there can be no new or relevant approach to exorcism horror, director Daniel Stamm picks that scab.

Jacqueline Byers is Sister Ann, and she wants to be an exorcist. She attends to patients/inmates/victims as a nurse in a prestigious, centuries-old facility for exorcism in Boston. She also sneaks into classes where no woman is welcome, until Father Quinn (Colin Salmon) notices her unusual connection to some of the afflicted.

Is the church ready for a little feminism?

Wait, the Catholic church?

Prey for the Devil scores points in understated ways. Virginia Madsen’s psychologist dismisses the rite and believes Ann suffers from unresolved trauma. This is treated as something to consider rather than as a narrative device representing good or evil. In the world created by writers Robert Zappia, Todd R. Jones and Earl Richey Jones, science and religion are equally helpful and problematic. It’s often fascinating the way the film respects and undermines simultaneously.

On the whole, exorcism films fall into two categories. One: religion is fake and Catholicism, in particular, is so steeped in misdeeds and debauchery that it may as well kneel to Satan. Two: faith is the only hope. Prey for the Devil suggests a more nuanced approach.

The film’s strengths are its moments of outright feminism because they feel informed rather than flippant. They’re also a bit muted by an acceptance of the “working from within the system” failure.

The other failure is the horror itself, and Stamm should know better. His 2008 gem The Last Exorcism is a standout in the sub-genre (and one of the welcome features where there’s nary a priest on the screen). The horror was inventive, primal and it packed an emotional punch.

A PG13 film, Prey for the Devil suffers from lack of imagination. If you’ve seen one crab walk you’ve seen them all, and Stamm doesn’t deliver a single unique moment of horror in 93 minutes.  

But he knows that nothing takes down a Catholic girl faster than a lifetime of guilt and shame. That metaphor fits a tale of an irredeemable soul better than any I’ve seen, and a little slap of feminism is probably the only thing that can help.

3 thoughts on “Ain’t That a Shame”

  1. I’m inclined to agree. My first move when I walked out of the film was to call my husband and tell him what I thought. My verdict: it was better than I expected, but still not great.
    **Of note: this film and “Smile” shot nearly-identical opening sequences.**

    My opinion was a little sullied going in, because I had read an article which opined that the film played like Catholic propaganda. But after having seen it, I actually disagree. Maybe it’s because I’m not Catholic that I don’t understand whatever propagandist undertones are present. To me, it was clearly a case study in childhood trauma, from the perspective of a woman-of-faith in a patriarchal religious system. It was also a tender story about a woman bonding with a young girl (no spoilers here for why that is) and other women at times when they’d otherwise be isolated and alone. I actually cried during that exorcism scene between Sister Ann and Emelia (Father Dante’s sister), but not from fear. I cried because it was beautiful and poignant to see one woman console another woman in the throes of her grief and guilt and shame. Who among us has not silently suffered, wishing that someone could comfort us too?

    Not for nothing, it’s notable that it took a woman to approach the exorcism in a different way, from the way men had always done it. Globally, this is quickly becoming the case when a woman is put in a position of power from one that traditionally is held by men. We see this in business with female CEOs being more innovative and pragmatic than their male counterparts. We see this in film with female directors coming up with fresh narratives, angles and characters so vastly different from what a white-male-helmed Hollywood has spat out for so many years. (I also told my husband it was cool to see a woman in that priestly get-up!)

    I also appreciated how Sister Ann initially treats Dr. Peters (Virginia Madsen) with suspicion and mild contempt. But after her botched attempt at Emilia’s exorcism, and after Sister Euphemia and the top brass rebuke her (for doing what some might call “moving fast and breaking things”, showing how women are often complicit in our own oppression), it was Dr. Peters who came to her side and encouraged her to keep going.

    Speaking of keeping going, I could keep going about all the instances in which this film shined (particularly when women share the screen with other women). I could also blather on about all the ways it fell flat. But I shall end this post, lest I should further beleaguer the point, with this assessment:

    As a strictly horror/possession film, the film flounders. But as a critique of the patriarchy, and the oppression of women suffered from within, it shines through and through. I give it a solid 5.5/10.

    1. Felt just the same, especially about the priest garb. I would have loved it to be a little more strident, actually, in the way it approached the female point of view, but Sister Ann’s changing relationship with Dr. Peters was a welcome change of pace in an exorcism film. Lovely review, by the way!

      1. Oh thank you; I feel the same about yours! It’s the only review I’ve read that critiques the film through a feminist lens. Just found your work, and I can’t wait to read more (:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.