Prey for the Devil

Prey for the Devil

Prey for the Devil answers the question we’ve all been asking.  Why do hunky, smoldering priests get to have all the exorcism fun?  While the movie does include a couple of those types, the story focuses on the sultry, platinum blond Sister Ann (Jacqueline Byers).  After years of men lording over the Rite of Exorcism, finally there is progress!

As a child, Sister Ann endured torture at the hands of her mother.  But her mother wasn’t always mean.  As Sister Ann recalls to psychologist Dr. Peters (a tired-looking Virginia Madsen), her mother wasn’t bipolar: she was possessed.  (Using your head to knock on the door is a dead giveaway.)   After her mother died, Sister Ann lived in foster care until she was taken in by a convent.  Her experience with her mother led her to seek answers at the St. Michael The Archangel School of Exorcism in Boston, Massachusetts.  

After years of not giving demonic possession the proper funding, the Catholic Church has finally upped its game.  Instead of using a few well-worn priests to handle this responsibility on an ad-hoc basis, the Church built an incredibly beautiful and high-tech environment where young priests are taught all about demons, possession and how to perform The Rite.  Think of it as Professor Xavier’s School for Gifted Students, except that instead of mutants there are hunky, smoldering priests.

While young priests learn the ways and means of their trade, nuns like Sister Ann, are relegated to providing personal care for the patients.  Yes, even in the year 2018 (when this movie is based), the Rite of Exorcism and all things associated with it are still the exclusive domain of priests.  The patients who seemingly need an exorcism are housed in secured rooms below the main floor, where they are observed for a period of time before The Rite is performed.  One day, while Sister Ann gives a sponge bath to a patient, the patient confronts her in a very demonic way.  This movie’s version of Professor X, Father Quinn (Colin Salmon in Patrick Stewart mode), notices that Sister Ann has a personal connection to the Devil.  He allows her to attend classes and observe an exorcism in a controlled environment, provided she doesn’t assist.  (You already know where this is headed, right?)

Sister Ann also bonds with a young girl named Natalie (Posy Taylor).  The experience forces Sister Ann to confront her experiences with her mother, and other events in her past that may have a direct connection to the present.  (Spoilers are in the analysis.)  Until that relationship is revealed, Sister Ann learns that the patients eventually enter a “terminal stage”, where the demon decides to kill its host and move on.  Fearful that this will happen to Natalie, Sister Ann becomes further enmeshed with The Rite via her colleagues Father Dante (Christian Navarro as smoldering) and Father Raymond (Nicholas Ralph as hunky).  Eventually, when Sister Ann’s  connection to Natalie is revealed, there’s a race against time to save Natalie from dying at the hands of the demon.

Prey isn’t a great movie or even a good one.  It lands solidly on the “decent” side of the spectrum as an entertaining B-movie.  For the faithful, the movie includes all the standard elements of an exorcism movie.  Priests yell stuff from the Bible while the demon says and does crazy things.  Some priests die while others live.  Where Prey surprises is how it suffuses the story with new ideas.  Usually in these movies exorcisms are relegated to the Church’s bottom drawer.  No one speaks of them and they are only performed when the Church has no alternative.  In Prey’s world, the Church has taken off its gloves and put its money toward training a holy army of young, handsome recruits in its war against the Devil.  And instead of focusing only on the demon, Sister Ann asks, what has led the victim to become possessed in the first place?  Finally, Prey discusses possession like cancer.  When a victim enters the “terminal stage”, the victim doesn’t have long before the demon cuts bait.

I engaged in a bit of fun while describing the plot.  Exorcism movies are easy to mock, but I respected Prey more than I expected.  The movie is beautifully filmed, a mark of craftsmanship on what usually are very cheap productions.  The acting is solid, with nobody embarrassing themselves.  Byers is an attractive lead and does good work here.  The actors who play her male colleagues aren’t given enough to distinguish themselves, though.  Salmon has a great voice and presence, and the movie had a bigger role for him.  Madsen is a bit of a disappointment.  Prey takes its subject matter seriously, but I would argue its tone is more earnest than serious.  Most importantly, it never plays for cheap laughs or devolves into camp.  It’s an exorcism movie that tries to be better than average and succeeds.  Mildly Recommended.

Analysis

In my review for The Unholy, I included a list of every possession-themed movie over the past ten years.  Incredibly, one of these movies is released almost every year on average.  This speaks to the incredible staying power of this subgenre of horror.  Only one of those movies was a sequel.  The rest were “new” stories.  There are many reasons why this type of movie is released so frequently.  They are relatively cheap to make and usually turn a profit.  Horror movie fans are a very forgiving bunch, and a decent number will show up regardless of the reviews.  They are a reasonable choice for a Friday or Saturday date night, offering a handful of solid scares that make watching them with an audience a fun experience.

A possession/exorcism movie can’t get away with blindly following the same template and make money.  Each of these movies must include variations on the theme that will convince moviegoers that “this time it will be different”.  Prey separates itself from what has gone before by placing a nun at the center of the events.  There are a number of male priests in Sister Ann’s orbit throughout the movie, but she is the lead character.  Over the course of the movie she goes from observing to performing an exorcism all by herself.  This, of course, is progress and a victory for equal rights.  Why should dudes have all the fun tussling with Satan’s henchmen?

Since Prey is rooted in Catholicism, hunky priests still play a role in the proceedings.  Father Dante (Christian Navarro, 13 Reasons Why) is of the smoldering variety, while Father Raymond (Nicholas Ralph, PBS’ All Creatures Great and Small) is the pensive and soft-spoken type.  Likewise, Jacqueline Byers’ Sister Ann is a very comely nun.  With her platinum blonde hair and her propensity for sports wear after hours, she is a world removed from Taissa Farmiga’s demure and plain Sister Irene in The Nun.  Honestly, if the Catholic church were filled with these people, they would have no problem filling every church for Sunday services.

The other way that Prey shakes things up is by depicting the Catholic church’s exorcism schools as something that would fit right in with today’s modern world.  The School of Exorcism Sister Ann attends is an eye-catching combination of beautiful classic architecture and high-tech accents.  Upstairs there are marble statues, stained glass windows, grand staircases and wood-paneled offices.  Downstairs has a James Bond feel to it.  The rooms where the patients are held for observation have digital screens on the outside connected to cameras inside the room.  Every door has an electronic lock that requires badge access.  Every secured area has glass doors that you would see in a high-tech laboratory, the ones that gleam, beep and make a  “whoosh” sound when activated.  Before heading into an exorcism, each priest is given a shining leather suitcase that contains a stole, bible, rosary, vial of holy water and aspergillum (a Christian liturgical implement used to sprinkle holy water).  The days when exorcisms were the domain of modest priests who thumb well-worn bibles is over.

The production design of Prey is very impressive.  I mentioned Bond earlier but the aesthetic that this movie emulates is closer to Bryan Singer’s X-Men movies.  Instead of mutants, the church has used its financial resources to build schools that train its young members how to use faith, psychology and a dash of technology to combat evil.  Most, if not all exorcism movies of this type skip past the whole training aspect of performing an exorcism.  In many other movies in this category, the priest who performs the exorcism has already been trained and can read the lines with gravitas.  Prey shows us the young recruits being trained and prepared for battle, performing exorcisms in a controlled environment.  If you’re devout, you may consider all of this as blasphemy.  I call it revolutionary, for exorcism movies at least.

Another element of Prey I noticed was how the possessed had a finite time to live.  Pegged “terminal cases”, priests have a limited amount of time before the victim dies.  Instead of being infected with stage four cancer, the victim is infected with a demon.  Whether this is due to the demon getting tired of priests performing rites against it, or the victim’s body expiring due to the strain is not clear.  Usually in exorcism movies, the demon is either driven out or the priests are killed.  The notion that the possessed have an “expiration date” was novel.

By having Sister Ann focus on the victim and not the demon, Prey adopts a line of thinking more in line with rehab than an exorcism.  Curing a person of addiction is more than just eliminating their drug of choice.  It takes recognizing why that person became an addict in the first place.  In a similar way, Prey explains that a person who becomes possessed isn’t a seemingly random thing.  Consider it a “patient-centered exorcism”.  Through her research, Sister Ann learns that the demon is invited in by the victim because of their overwhelming feelings of guilt and shame.  The victim desires to be punished, and a demon is more than willing to oblige.  Natalie’s shame is over being given up for adoption.  Sister Anne’s shame is rooted in getting pregnant with her at fifteen.  To be sure, Prey still offers up several effective demonic possession scenes.  The difference is that in this movie they have context and are there to do more than provide shock value.

I’m not making a case for declaring Prey as a great exorcism movie, or even a very good one.  It’s certainly not a bad one, and I’d like to think I’ve seen enough of those to tell the difference.  I could spend another thousand words picking the movie apart, dissecting each and every one of its flaws.  The platonic love triangle suggested between Sister Ann and her two male colleagues amounts to nothing.  Virginia Madsen is resigned and subdued as Dr. Peters, making me wistful for her critically-acclaimed turn in Sideways.  Father Quinn (Colin Salmon) and his amazing voice are completely absent from the big conclusion.  Speaking of which, the big conclusion is very reminiscent of The Nun.  And the movie’s very last scene proposes a continuation of the story that I doubt will ever come.  I could go on.

I overlooked Prey’s faults and recommend it because it exceeded my expectations of the typical exorcism movie.  Instead of rehashing the very familiar playbook, it drives the story with new ideas.  If there’s any genre that desperately needs an infusion of fresh thinking, it’s this one.  The acting is unspectacular but it is solid.  The production values are exceptional.  The filmmakers could have shot the movie digitally to save money, but instead used film to capture their incredible sets.  That decision alone earns my respect.

Prey was originally titled The Devil’s Light.  I included that trailer below, along with the latest one.  I don’t understand why the filmmakers or the studio decided to rename the movie.  First, the original title is very intriguing.  The devil and satanic things are generally presented as happening in darkness.  What sort of light would the Devil possess?  Second, the original title directly ties into one of Sister Ann’s monologues about her mother.  The new title is nothing more than a stupid pun.  I’m guessing the studio changed the title because people didn’t get it.  Personally, I think the new title makes no sense at all, and the studio chose banality over originality.

This is director Daniel Stamm’s second feature film about exorcisms.  His The Last Exorcism (2010) was incredibly profitable, returning $70m on a $1.8m budget.  His next film, 13 Sins (2014) only grossed $47k world wide and probably led to his eight year stint in television (a.k.a. director jail).  In spite of the title change, Prey made $43m worldwide, not an impressive number but probably enough to recoup its budget.  The world could use more B-movies that look as good as this one, and also bring new ideas to tired formulas.  Hopefully Prey earns Stamm another tour in the director’s chair.  

One last thing.  The beginning of the movie includes a title card that states how, in 2018, “Reports of demonic possession reach unprecedented numbers globally.”  I figured it was due to a rise in fascism around the world.  I realize that the movie wasn’t made with politics in mind, but considering the world back then, what other explanation could there be?

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