Written By Darren
Rating 2 out of 5
Prey for the Devil has all the elements required for a solid exorcism spook, but unfortunately the elements do not come together to create the spine tingling experience it strives to be.
Horror movies are one of the trickiest genres to make a film in nowadays. The entire concept of the genre is built around scarring the audience, which requires creepy moments, an unsettling atmosphere, and actions that make the audience either scream or jump out of their seat. But there are only so many ways to do that, which requires filmmakers to either perfect these techniques, or convey them through an unique idea that makes them feel original.
For his latest film, German director Daniel Stamm returns to the exorcism genre after directing 2010’s The Last Exorcism. You have all the elements required for an exorcism film: Latin, possessed children, human bodies performing unnatural movements, objects hurtling through the air with lethal intent, and even a brief head spin, as well as the usual horror film staples of unexpected characters appearing behind our main characters or in the shadows, scenes plunged in darkness, startling sounds, and of course, demons. And Stamm uses these individual elements to create the necessary jump scares required of the genre, but sadly to no effect as the film is missing an unsettling atmosphere to have the audience on edge so the jump scares can land and shock them.
Newcomers to the genre or younger audiences will no doubt jump and experience moments of pure terror throughout the film, but for big fans of the horror genre, there is little here to wet their appetite. It’s just not easy with so many great films already existing in this sub genre, such as classics like The Exorcist or modern hits like The Conjuring, to deliver those spin tingling scares to make another good entry to the genre. It is no fault of Stamm’s directorial efforts, as technically speaking Stamm does a great job and crafts not one but three exorcism scenes that will without a doubt cause a few chills to cross over your body. It’s clear that Stamm knows how to execute the scenes, and that he is restricted by the screenplay and the runtime of the film to create the horror experience he wanted to.
The plot is nothing special but has enough to fill the ninety minute run time, providing a modern approach to exorcism as we follow a young nun, Sister Ann, who begins to train in the technique of exorcism. However, Sister Ann finds herself the target of the demon possessing a young girl, which has ties to her troubled childhood. Exorcism, as we are told in the film and have experienced in other films, is a profession within the church dominated by men, that given the female lead, provides some interesting discussion of the role of women in the church. At the same time, the modern setting and the use of science and medicine to determine if someone is truly possessed by a demonic spirit or not generates some interesting commentary on the intersection of science and faith, two schools of thought that historically do not mix. They’re both interesting enough ideas, but with a run time of just over ninety minutes, the screenplay is not able to explore these concepts and is instead forced to move quickly to fit the entire story in. Unfortunately, this results in predictable plot points that set up twists the audience can see coming a mile away, which only induces a slight groan when they are the big reveal heading into the final act of the film.
No blame can be placed on the cast, as they are actually good. Canadian actress Jacqueline Byers leads the film as Sister Ann, the young nun pursuing an education in exorcism. She remains resolute, not allowing her character’s faith or love for humanity to waver during the demonic activities of the film. Her performance grounds the film, even if she is not given the time to help create an emotional connection between her character and the audience or to explore her character’s internal struggles. While they have limited screen time, having two veteran actors like Colin Salmon and Virginia Madsen in supporting roles is a major asset to the film and frankly, the best element of the entire film. Both Salmon and Madsen steal the show, creating interesting characters in an otherwise dull film. I would have preferred more of them, especially Madsen’s character who does not serve a larger purpose other than to unpack Sister Ann’s past trauma rather than being an integral part of the story.
Aside from Salmon and Madsen, the second best thing going for the film is the title. Instead of “pray” which evokes the religious themes of the film, the creative team toys with this idea and uses “prey’ which sounds the same, but harbors a far more sinister meaning that matches the film’s narrative. Because the film is frankly not that scary due to its lack of an unsettling atmosphere to help land the countless jump scares stick the landing, the cast’s talent is ultimately wasted in Prey for the Devil, unfortunately delivering yet another forgettable horror film.