ANDREW GARVEY reviews The Devil’s Doorway (2018), a found footage horror film from Ireland
Title: The Devil’s Doorway
Year Released: 2018
Director: Aislinn Clarke
Cast: Lalor Roddy, Ciaran Flynn, Helena Bereen and Lauren Coe
Originally approached to make a modern, GoPro-filmed found footage film set in one of Ireland’s abandoned ‘Magdalene Laundries’, director and co-writer (alongside Martin Brennan and Michael B. Jackson) Aislinn Clarke transformed what could have been just anpother shaky cam shocker into something far more original, imaginative and challenging.
Utilising her previous, existing research (which included speaking to around twenty former residents/inmates of the Irish Catholic Church’s infamous homes for supposedly ‘fallen women’) for a documentary planned, but unmade a decade earlier, Clarke’s finished film is impressive – a found footage period piece that delivers credibly unnerving characters, creepy atmosphere, noisy jump scares, real emotional impact and even plenty of historical accuracy.
Somewhere in Ireland in 1960, two priests are sent to a Magdalene laundry to investigate an anonymous letter about a miraculous statue of the Virgin Mary that weeps blood. The older of them, Father Thomas (played with world weary moral authority by Lalor Roddy) is jaded and sceptical. The much younger Father John (Ciaran Flynn in his first major role) is full of hope and idealism. As a duo, they’re hardly original, given that essentially they’re a mirthless, horror film-bound Father Ted and Father Dougal from classic 1990s Irish sitcom, ‘Father Ted’ but they work perfectly for the narrative.
Practically faithless after more than twenty years of investigating supposed miracles in places as exotic (especially for 1960) as Greece and India, Thomas is a literal ‘Doubting Thomas’. It’s hardly a subtle Biblical reference and John, appalled at his elder’s lack of faith and wonder even explicitly calls him that in one monologue. But, in Thomas’ experience, the only evil in the world is due to the actions and natures of men and the miracles can be explained away by science or trickery. If James Randi had a favourite Catholic priest, it’d be him.
A carefully thought-through film, Father John’s determination to capture proof of a miracle on camera and, once events head down a darker path, his need to document the strange and frightening events in the home explain why he keeps his two cameras, one large stationary unit and one smaller handheld with a narratively convenient, unreliable, on-off bulb, on as long as he does. Thanks to this adherence to detail and (usually, at least) logic, and the claustrophobically tight, square viewscreen with its grainy footage, flashes and flaws, that we witness everything through, the found footage gimmick works, and works well.
The Devil’s Doorway, a fast-paced and multi-layered story
Making found footage look and feel original isn’t the easiest of tasks but the setting and the archaic look help ‘the Devil’s Doorway’ immediately stand out in a long-overcrowded horror subgenre. Found footage tends to work best in briefer doses and at just 76 minutes, this is perfect for the fast-paced but still multi-layered story Clarke wants to tell.
After efficiently establishing Fathers Thomas and John’s mission we’re given a glimpse of the home’s arbitrary cruelty and oppressive nastiness under the harsh, sneering Mother Superior (a brilliantly hateful Helena Bereen). Obstructive and openly mocking Father Thomas even while Father John films their exchanges for the oft-mentioned, never-seen Bishop, she barely flinches when Thomas confronts her with what he’s learned about the home’s shameful secret, Kathleen (a believably heartbreaking Lauren Coe), the mentally ill, pregnant young woman shackled to a wall in the filthy basement.
Kathleen’s plight gives the priests a new focus, even while John especially is tormented by supernatural voices and noises every night. True, her apparent demonic possession is predictable (unless you’re watching the film without knowing its name) and at times her symptoms do feel like a checklist of possession cliches being ticked off. So much so that at one point, that’s literally what Father John does. Still, her suffering is grimly, movingly portrayed, most notably in one long, static, hard to watch shot that’s one of the film’s most memorable sequences.
Made for £230,000 and shot in 16 days, Clarke’s first feature film is an impressive debut. Effective at building a creepily oppressive atmosphere and less reliant on cheap jump scares than it could have been, the setting is believable, and the actors’ performances – especially Roddy’s – are strong, far beyond the standard ‘horror film acting’. True, there’s the odd illogical impossibility along the way, the film occasionally trips up over its own story and the final act doesn’t quite live up to its excellent beginning or middle but ‘the Devil’s Doorway’ is a great way to discover there’s still new, and original life in the found footage business.