The Devil's Doorway


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

The Devil's Doorway
"It's worth suspending disbelief for a tale that grips where it matters and, through its superb performances, serves as a potent reminder that there were real human beings at the heart of all the real life horrors."

Over the roughly 230 years that they were in operation, some 30,000 women and girls are believed to have passed through Ireland's now infamous Magdalene laundries. They were the women society rejected: sex workers, orphans, victims of rape and child abuse, the mentally ill and those who became pregnant out of wedlock. They provided slave labour for the Church's businesses whilst any children they gave birth to were sold for adoption - or suffered much worse fates. In the wake of the findings at the Bon Secours Mother and Baby Home in Tuam, one might think that nothing more horrific could be made of the subject - but by using these issues as the foundations of a horror film, Aislinn Clarke has created a conduit for the anger that resides in the scandal's wake.

Father Thomas Riley (Lalor Roddy) and Father John Thornton (Ciaran Flynn) have been sent to a home for 'fallen women' to investigate claims of a miracle - an anonymous letter writer has reported that a statue of the Virgin Mary has been weeping blood. Father Thomas does not expect to find anything. He's been in this business for decades and never has; his focus is entirely on working out how the scam has been engineered. For Father John, just out of the seminary and possessed of a set of cheekbones that make the Mother Superior (Helena Bereen) resent his presence before he's even spoken, the experience is a much more mystical one. His primary job is to document his colleague's work on camera, but he quickly becomes convinced that he's seeing things not of this world. As Father Thomas grows incensed at the cruel way he sees the young women treated, Father John begins to suspect that some supernatural evil is afoot - and that's before they find out what the nuns are keeping locked away in the basement.

Copy picture

This being set in 1960, the 'found footage' we see is on Cine film - it's not clear to date if original stock was used or if it's all digital recreation, but it's beautifully done. For some viewers, it will strike a nostalgic note that contributes to the tangle of emotions the film evokes, cleverly complicating what might seem like simple issues. In a key scene, the Mother Superior rages at a Church that sets out moral rules, uses women to do its dirty work, gives them far too few resources and then leaves them to take all the flak when things go wrong. The film frequently flares, burns or flickers out, artefacts much more interesting than commonplace VHS static or the awkward splices of digital. Whilst it's not quite believable that it would capture as much as it does in dark places by the light of a single bulb, and there are a number of minor flaws in the special effects, it's worth suspending disbelief for a tale that grips where it matters and, through its superb performances (particularly from Roddy), serves as a potent reminder that there were real human beings at the heart of all the real life horrors.

What Clarke has to say about the Church is not subtle but is amply justified by the context she supplies, and you don't need to know the history of the homes in depth to find the film disturbing, though a bit of background in the Church's influence over medical decisions will send an extra chill down your spine during the film's most brutal scene. Few actors ever really master the art of portraying physical pain, and what young Lauren Coe achieves here is as rare as it is distressing. As a whole, the film is artfully composed, with a nod to the cinematic traditions that Father John could be expected to be familiar with. Its graininess makes it feel much more real and immediate than many a more polished production.

Screening at Cinepocalypse 2018, this is a film that serves as a testament to Ireland's rapidly changing culture. Careful to distinguish between religious orthodoxy, religious faith and faith in God, it explores ideas around good and evil that were heavily suppressed at the time yet still feel authentic in context, and which are coming to the fore today. The ambiguity of the title is as important as the ambiguity of the ending - and always, underscoring it, the understanding that there was nothing ambiguous about what was found beneath the ground in Tuam.

Reviewed on: 23 Jun 2018
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The Devil's Doorway packshot
In the autumn of 1960, Father Thomas Riley and Father John Thornton were sent by the Vatican to investigate a miraculous event in an Irish home for 'fallen women', only to uncover something much more horrific.

Director: Aislinn Clarke

Writer: Martin Brennan, Aislinn Clarke

Starring: Lalor Roddy, Ciaran Flynn, Helena Bereen, Lauren Coe

Year: 2018

Runtime: 77 minutes

Country: UK


Frightfest 2018

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