Written by Aislinn Clarke, Michael B. Jackson, Martin Brennan
Directed by Aislinn Clarke
Inspired by true events, Aislinn Clarke’s The Devil’s Doorway sheds a light on one of Ireland’s darkest secrets. At one time, women deemed “undesirable” were shipped off to facilities known as Magdalene Laundries – a Catholic convent of sorts where they were then forced to work themselves to the bone in order to atone for their supposed sins. In 1993 a mass grave was found containing 155 corpses on the grounds of one of the Laundries, a shocking find that Ireland is still coming to grips with. The last Laundry wasn’t closed until 1996 even though it seems like this kind of enslavement could never creep so close to the present.
As you’ll probably agree, setting a horror film in one of these monstrous locales seems inevitable. However, Clarke’s screenplay uses this real-life nightmare as a backdrop, deciding instead to focus on a series of supposed miracles that two priests must investigate inside a functioning convent that’s hiding something sinister beneath its pristine surface. Set in 1960, the found footage angle makes sense here as the young optimist, Father John (Flynn), documents the investigation while also keeping Father Thomas’ (Roddy) growing skepticism firmly in focus. Well, maybe not that firm since there are some moments of shaky-cam hijinks; but that’s to be expected, right? We witness statues of the Virgin Mary bleeding from their eyes and the playful spirits of children delighting in scaring the bejesus out of Father John, but it’s after both men discover what the nuns have really been hiding that things get truly disturbing. Those uncovered moments are, of course, where the real-life horrors dealing with the mistreatment of so many Irish women are brought to light.
But maybe, just maybe, there might actually be a reason to keep one of these women chained up. Delving deeper into the bowels of the convent, the intensity ratchets up and the clever camera tricks work in tandem to deliver a surprisingly compelling mystery into the occult that still keeps one foot firmly planted in real world history. Clarke shows a great understanding of how and when to introduce moments of dread, from children’s feet running across the floor the second the camera is put down to more erratic sequences where the 16 millimeter camera bulb keeps fading on and off. It’s a little more annoying than unnerving at times, but hey, that’s the love/hate relationship that I have with the sub-genre. You know what you’re getting, but Clarke makes the most of the trope.
But really, we’re all here for the same reason: EVIL NUNS. Cloaked in a period correct habit, Helena Bereen’s Mother Superior does not disappoint, moving from stern protector to creepy warden with quiet, chilling confidence. Once the jump scares go into full found footage funhouse mode, rest assured that cackling nuns will be scurrying around waiting for the perfect time to strike.
The idea of setting a first person horror film inside one of these Magdalene Laundries is a good combination of commerce and concept, but it does undermine the stories of those women who perished in forced servitude and doesn’t really address the Irish guilt that comes along with that tragedy. Found footage still has an audience and it’s undoubtedly a hook to lure viewers, but it would be fascinating to see what Clarke, who is such a sure-handed filmmaker her first time out, would do with more straightforward material. Of course, The Devil’s Doorway isn’t meant to be an exposé. As it stands, the use of a small piece of historical thread blends well into the fabric of a scary nun outfit; it just winds up being more of a fun Halloween costume instead of a great vintage find.
The Devil’s Doorway arrives in limited theaters and on VOD today, July 13th, from IFC Midnight.
This doorway opens up to find real-life horrors that may be more disturbing than killer nuns and secret lairs.