The story of the Catholic church is a maze of tradition, secrets, power and religion that has permeated nearly every part of the globe. While many aspects of this far reaching religion are common knowledge, there are many that still remain a mystery to the general public.
Magdalene laundries (aka Magdalene asylums) were church run institutions that housed women who were considered ‘fallen.’ This term was open to interpretation and usually included women who became pregnant out of marriage, prostitutes, mentally ill patients, or women who generally didn’t seem to conform to common social standards in some way. Run by Catholic nuns, these institutions were located all over world and somehow managed to operate under the radar of the public. Conditions were often less than pleasant and the treatment of these women was often abusive and exploitative. This is the setting we find ourselves in for new found footage film The Devil’s Doorway.
The film takes place in 1960 Ireland where two priests are sent to one of these institutions to investigate a reported miracle. The miracle is anonymously reported and involves a statue of Mary that periodically weeps blood from its eyes. Father Thomas Riley (played by Lalor Roddy) is the senior investigating priest while John Thornton (Ciaran Flynn) is a young, eager priest and videographer for the investigation.
Armed with a 16mm camera, Thornton is anxious to capture the first miracle on film, while Riley quickly makes his skepticism known by telling the young priest that it won’t happen. Rather than waste film watching a silent statue, Thornton begins to explore the laundry documenting the women, their work and the varying degrees of mistreatment they incur. While initially cordial, Mother Superior (Helena Bereen) quickly shows her true colors to the priests and her frustrations with the church:
“Leave all the dirty work to the women. You worry about how we treat the girls? What about how about how you treat us? Leave us to hide all the messes and cover it all up and swarm in all holier than thou. Do you know how many of the church’s messes I’ve personally had to clean up? Do you know how many of the babies born here had fathers who were Fathers, Father? Didn’t think so.”
One thing that is really nice about this film is that there is no time wasted. Everyone’s roles are quickly established, their intentions and mindsets clearly defined. Father Riley is a true cynic approaching the assignment as fraud first, miracle second. Mother Superior a bitter and broken human, Thornton still young, impressionable and open to things he may not fully understand. He also keeps the camera rolling long after a more seasoned priest may have put it down for the night. He approaches this assignment as a real opportunity and his film becomes part documentary, part confessional. While this is clearly a narrative to support the format, it doesn’t feel forced or gimmicky.
Not long into the movie, or the priests’ visit, strange things begin to happen at night. Noises, children appearing where there’s supposedly no children present, all being recorded by Thornton‘s ever rolling camera. This is where the found footage format of the film really lends itself to executing quality scares. All the classics are represented here; quick cuts, background happenings, lights cutting in and out, audio tricks, POV shots, and the old dropped camera showing just enough to creep the viewer out. And just when the film starts to drag a bit during a hard-to-believe recorded speech from Father Riley, all the statues of the Virgin Mary in the institution begin to weep blood. Type O Negative human blood from a pregnant female to be exact. And here we enter the second act of the film.
During the investigation of the blood, the priests encounter the nun who sent the original report to the church. She reveals there is much more going on than Mother Superior would like them to believe. She clues the priests in on a woman named Kathleen O’Bryan (Lauren Coe) who is being kept locked up in the basement. Shocked by the conditions in which O’Bryan is being kept, Riley soon comes to realize there is more to the young pregnant woman than meets the eye. Despite the terrifying events and things that tend to happen around O’Bryan, Riley shows a remarkable compassion and patience with the young woman. Even giving his distance and cynicism towards the church, he still manages to keep his humanity intact in a way that is really very touching.
Keeping up the quick pace, things escalate quickly in a variety of ways. In order to avoid spoiler territory, let’s just say The Devil’s Doorway doesn’t fit into one specific mold and not all loose ends are neatly tied up. While some may have a problem with that, I found it quite enjoyable. Having a film go exactly where you think it will go is never really fun for anyone and leaving some things open-ended left me thinking about the film long after it was over.
It’s a ballsy move to release a found footage film in a world that seems truly saturated with them, and an even ballsier move for a feature directorial debut. Director Aislinn Clarke not only made this move, but she manages to pull it off remarkably well. The film is meant to appear like it was shot with a 16mm camera and Clarke takes this undertaking seriously. The grain of the film, the lighting, audio, the constant background running film noise, light leaks, sprocket stutter and film burns; all of these things contribute an aesthetic that works for the film rather than against. There’s also a distinct lack of film score that helps draw the viewer in and I know I found myself unconsciously on the edge of my seat more than once. While there is nothing really groundbreaking about the film, the backdrop of the 1960’s Magdalene laundry is a unique and interesting setting. A quick watch that wastes no time, The Devil’s Doorway will prove to be a welcome addition for fans of the found footage genre and proves that Clarke is not only capable, but a director to watch.