Hostage To The Devil


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Malachai Martin in Hostage To The Devil
"If you go into this film believing in demonic possession, you are likely to find it chilling in places. If you don't, it's unlikely to change your mind. The more interesting questions are focused on Martin himself."

If you’re an avid reader of horror-related non-fiction, the chances are that you’re already familiar with Malachai Martin’s best-seller, Hostage To The Devil – the story of the lone priest’s career as an exorcist, travelling the length and breadth of America (and sometimes beyond) to free people from the evil spirits they felt had possessed them. This film is not a recreation of that story but a documentary attempting to get at the truth about the man behind it. Was he sincere in his beliefs or a con man? What happened during his dramatic final case? And was he really winning against his demons or had they started hunting him?

If you haven't encountered Martin's fiction, you're probably familiar with at least one of his cases, as he was the priest who worked with the child whose story inspired The Exorcist. As is wont in such cases, he was pretty scathing about the film and continued to assert that his experience had been far scarier. The case gets some space for discussion here but Martin (speaking in archive footage only, as he passed away after suffering a cerebral haemorrhage in 1999) is light on details, preferring to hint at monstrous things which it would be inconsiderate to explain. This seems to be a common factor in his testimony. He's very specific about information which can be found in the Bible or more recent theological works, but far less so in relation to what he's done himself; instead, he supplies a flood of trivial details which have nothing to do with demonic forces but contrive to make his listeners feel they have heard something important.

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So is he just a con man? Some of those interviewed here seem to think so; others simply imply that he was untrustworthy or sleazy, but might still have had some supernatural gift. Overall, a good balance of opinion is given, but it's not always contextualised well - for instance, Robert Blair Kaiser repeats certain allegations of a personal nature yet no mention is made of his clinical paranoia diagnosis. It's an unfortunate business however one looks at it and perhaps the filmmakers wishes to get away from the seedier side of things to focus on religious questions, because a good bit more time is devoted to these, though you shouldn't expect any deep insights.

If you go into this film believing in demonic possession, you are likely to find it chilling in places. If you don't, it's unlikely to change your mind. The more interesting questions are focused on Martin himself, but there is more heat than light. What really went on between him and Pope John Paul I? Was he on a secret mission? Many of his claims are quite possible, but they also fit the classic patterns of self-glorification and boundary-testing that one finds among habitual fantasists.

The documentation of Martin's final case, which provides the film's climactic scenes, will be the clincher for those who are predisposed to be scared by this stuff. We follow a long, snow-covered road out to a remote house in the woods. We hear how the priest was afraid, how he seemed to have a sense that something was going to go wrong. But the closing remarks made by the man who assisted him, describing the behaviour of a four-year-old girl, are disturbing in a different way - victim-blaming, bitterly prejudiced and trivialising the possibility of abuse, as if possession were the world's only evil. It's as if the mask slips for a moment and we see the hatefulness on which this man's belief system is built. How many others think that way? Is this what lay at the heart of Martin's beliefs?

One thing we do know about exorcism is that it damages those involved. Martin himself described it as taking something away from the exorcist every time. Individuals who have been subjected to exorcisms frequently speak of the lasing trauma it has caused them, though their voices are largely absent here. Communities are shaken by it. Several speakers here attest to the importance of filtering out the many cases of apparent possession that turn out to be something else, but there's still a tendency to assume certain truths which gives the film an uneasy quality for believers and unbelievers alike. As for Martin's death, it is described in such close association with that final case that it sounds like a consequence, contributing to the legend with just the kind of psychological sleight of hand con men excel at. He died 'in mysterious circumstances', we hear. Cerebral haemorrhages constitute one in five of all cases of cerebrovascular illness in America.

Reviewed on: 27 Aug 2016
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A documentary about Irish priest Father Malachi Martin and his crusade battling the devil from the release of The Exorcist movie through to his suspicious death in 1999.

Director: Marty Stalker

Writer: Rachel Lysaght, Marty Stalker

Starring: Richard O’Leary, Ralph Sarchie, John Zaffis, Art Bell, Pope John Paul II

Year: 2016

Runtime: 90 minutes

Country: UK


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The Last Exorcism