Shockingly, director Aislinn Clarke is apparently the first female director to helm a horror movie in Northern Ireland. Given the effectiveness of her debut feature, this found footage period piece, set in what could be described as a Catholic school house of horrors, should inspire more aspiring filmmakers out there to go make something as personal as The Devil’s Doorway is to Clarke.
In the below interview we delve into the tragic history of Ireland’s Magdalene Laundries, where women of a certain background were locked away and forced into indentured servitude. Obviously, that setting makes for a great backdrop for a horror film; and Clarke’s family connection to such a dark past gives the story a personal touch that keeps The Devil’s Doorway moving forward as the camera delves deeper and deeper into the mysteries of the asylum.
“What unholy terrors lurk behind the walls of a secretive Irish convent? Northern Ireland, 1960: Father Thomas Riley (Lalor Roddy) and Father John Thornton (Ciaran Flynn) are dispatched by the Vatican to investigate reports of a miracle—a statue of the Virgin Mary weeping blood—at a remote Catholic asylum for “immoral” women. Armed with 16mm film cameras to record their findings, the priests instead discover a depraved horror show of sadistic nuns, satanism, and demonic possession. Supernatural forces are at work here—but they are not the doing of God. Inspired by the infamous true histories of Magdalene Laundries—in which “fallen women” were held captive by the Irish Catholic Church—this found footage occult shocker is a chilling encounter with unspeakable evil.“
We started the conversation talking about our love for A Nightmare on Elm Street and if Clarke would ever consider working on an entry into the Freddy franchise…
The Devil’s Doorway (review here) finds its way into limited theaters and On Demand TODAY (Friday, July 13th) from IFC Midnight.
Dread Central: I’m not saying you’re interested in directing a Nightmare On Elm Street movie, but are you ever interested in adapting something? Since you have a Masters in writing, will you always prefer to direct from a screenplay that you’ve developed?
Aislinn Clarke: No, not necessarily. I don’t think I’m precious about that at all. I would never say no to anything if I felt it was the right thing and it was worth doing or if there was something new that could be said about it. Yeah, I absolutely would.
Dread Central: Well, I know they were talking about doing a found footage version of Friday the 13th that everyone hated, but maybe you could do a found footage version of Elm Street.
AC: That’d be a funny one, actually. Loads of it would take place in Dream Space so I’m not sure exactly how’d you’d translate that to found footage but interesting thought.
Dread Central: It’d be really burnt film that was discovered. But back to your film… You’re using such a classic horror setup in Devil’s Doorway; but you’re using the found footage technique, which is a much newer sub-genre. Did you always want to go that route and what were some of the challenges in editing and sound design, for instance, shooting in that style? The movie is definitely a technical achievement.
AC: Well, thank you so much. It’s kind of a chicken and egg question. The producers were wanting to make a found footage film but they were wanting to make a modern day found footage film and this was before they came to me at all. They had this vague idea that they wanted to make a found footage film in an abandoned Magdalene Laundry so it would be like an abandoned institution. It’d be something probably more in the line of Grave Encounters and they wanted it to be shot with GoPro. I said I love the idea of doing a horror film in a Magdalene Laundry but I wouldn’t do it like that and I’d never really considered doing found footage before. Then I thought, actually, in this context, I can see how that could be really interesting. So set it in the peak time of these facilities and shoot it on 16 millimeter and they’ll either go for that or they won’t. But it was the only way I could see of doing it in a way that I think would be fresh and interesting.
Dread Central: Can you explain the Magdalene Asylums? I know there was a mass grave found in the Nineties.
AC: Yeah, that’s right. There was the mass grave found in a tomb in Galway … 400 babies but nobody had any idea, there are no records, so no one has any idea how they ended up there and that’s still something being looked into. There were atrocities like this all over Ireland and I had long been aware of all these things. So, the Magdalene Laundries were facilities, institutions where women – mostly young women – were basically imprisoned for life if they were considered to be promiscuous. Some of them were prostitutes, some of them were just girls who were inconvenient to their families and they were just shipped off to these places. Basically, any member of your family could sign you into one of these places for any reason at all of their own discretion.
The last one closed in 1996 so we’re not talking about ancient history here either. They were forced to work for the convent washing sheets, which were metaphorically supposed to atone for their sins. They were literally washing away their guilt but actually in reality the convent was making money out of it. They were washing sheets for hotels … and they never saw a penny of that money and never paid for their work.
I think we can all agree that it was an absolutely hideous thing that happened and something that Irish people are just really starting to unpack and talk about and think about. It just seemed to me to be a natural setting for a horror film. I like horror films that deal with real world horror and use horror as a metaphor. So it just seemed like a natural setup for all that, really.
Dread Central: I think it’s one of my worst fears – and probably a lot of of others – where you’re being held against your will in what is basically indentured servitude. It’s really frightening.
AC: It is absolutely horrific. My own Dad, who actually passed away just days before we went into pre-production, he was what we call in Ireland a bread man. He delivered bread and cakes and stuff for bakeries. He used to be the delivery man for several Magdalene Laundries and Convents. I remember him when I was a kid describing to me what these places were like and he described them as a ‘white hot hell.’ These girls were so overworked and they were dripping with sweat and their faces were red. Everything was bright and white and clean but it was so hot in there and there was steam everywhere. From childhood it always struck me as a horrific place to be.
Dread Central: Why do you think nuns are so terrifying? We’ve got The Nun coming out and I feel like it’s maybe because we can’t relate to them. They’re supposed to be so pure so when they turn on you it’s the ultimate betrayal.
AC: Well, I think it’s no accident that Corin Hardy is also Irish who’s directing The Nun. There’s no question that they’re kind of scary if you’ve ever been taught by a nun. There are nice nuns, obviously, I’ve met lovely nuns and lovely priests and nasty priests. It is about power, if someone has power, particularly someone who doesn’t have power in very many ways. But if you give them power in one small corner of life, they can become corrupted by it. I think in terms of what you’re saying as well, the aesthetic of them even is kind of innocent: they’re totally clothed and have their habit on. But they can be so nasty. If you make someone that looks innocent nasty, then it just becomes ten times creepier. It’s like creepy dolls, that cliche of creepy dolls, or even possessed girls. Something that is ostensibly innocent or should be innocent, if you give it an evil streak, it becomes ten times scarier, doesn’t it?
Dread Central: Absolutely. I guess the fact that they’re so covered up does seem like they’re hiding something.
AC: Yeah, and that they can if they want to. The costume for Helena [Bereen], I love the costume she’s in as well because it is actually a genuine costume of a particular order of nuns. The sort of daintiness of it with this long frilly bonnet and everything that gives it this almost Victorian child ghost air. It’s like weird China doll-like type costumes. It is a legitimate habit from an actual order. It’s the combo of daintiness and evil that just gives you the creeps, I think.
Dread Central: Last question… Are you planning on staying in the world of horror for your next project?
AC: As I like to say, if I’m not writing or creating horror, there’s definitely a dead body in it somewhere. I’d like to be shooting something next year, but we’ll see how it goes. You know what it’s like, a lot of moving parts with finance, but hopefully I’ll be making another horror film next year.