The Devil’s Doorway was created by Aislinn Clarke – the first Irishwoman to write and direct a feature-length horror film. Clarke said the idea of writing a film about a Magdalene laundry came 10 years ago as she was doing research for a documentary that never happened. Magdalene laundries were Roman Catholic institutions for “fallen women” – a term that implied a female sexual promiscuity: young women that became pregnant outside of marriage. The laundries also housed women who suffered from mental health issues and who did not want to live according to societal rules and whose families see them as inconveniences.
In the film two priests, Father Thomas (Lalor Roddy) and Father John (Ciaran Flynn), are contacted by the Vatican and asked to travel to a Magdalene laundry to check the veracity of potentially miraculous experiences – the eyes of a statue was reported to cry blood. We meet the two priests as they start recording their experience, fitting the film into the found footage subgenre in a documentary style, where the authenticity plays a major part in it. As the film is set in the 1960, Ryan Kernaghan, the DOP, decided to shoot the film in 16mm and in a 4:3 aspect ratio. By doing so the film effortlessly reinvents the subgenre and it references perfectly the documentaries from the 60s, especially the Maysles brothers and the “fly on the wall” perspective. Father John holds the camera and the film is told through his perspective, but he is also an important and present character on the film, as the film allows for his fear to be conveyed through his breathing and shouts.
The film is not completely without faults, sometimes it does rely on jump-scares and on non diegetic music, which contradicts the fact that the film is a found footage. However, it is also visible that Clarke was very thoughtful on how she approached horror. The film builds up the atmosphere and the camera movements’ work so well on instigating our curiosity but also not wanting to look. It felt that at times the suspense and the possibility of a ghost was more impactful than the actual spirit. Clarke’s manipulation of the sense of imminent danger comes from the fact that we are not sure which is the real source of danger. Furthermore, one of the most horrific things to happen in the laundry is the treatment of women and the film depicts it so that Father Thomas is disgusted by it. The women we see in the background are mistreated and their presence creates a feeling of uneasiness in us – are they the danger or are they in danger?
There is a clear difference between the two main characters. While Father John is young and more susceptible to believe the paranormal events, Father Thomas has already given up his faith that God, or even the Devil, are behind the troubles in the institution, stating that in his life he has seen more than enough times that men are often the cause of all that’s bad and good in the world. Father Thomas is an interesting character because, although he is in conflict with his faith, the conflict is not an inner struggle, rather something he comes from the outside, from other men.
The film develops as the two priests start their investigations and, little by little, Father John starts to capture disturbing supernatural events. The two priests are led to the depths of the laundry to discover a woman who has been locked all by herself. Throughout their search for the cause of the paranormal activity in the laundry, the two priests come upon substantial evidence that the Mother Superior and the other nuns are practicing Satanism and it is during these moments that the film turns to a more traditional horror, including some exorcism shots. Ironically, those are the moments that the film is not at its best.
Aislinn’s feature debut is perfectly well paced and atmospheric, it shows that it was made by a hand that loves horror. Having said that, it is important to recognise that, even though the film delivers on how it approaches horror, the most important issue that it brings to the surface is the unfair treatment women suffered for years, mainly by the hands of the Catholic Church. The fact that it pokes on the church is important and brave, since the film was shot entirely in Northern Ireland, a very religious country. With The Devil’s Doorway Clarke proves she is an audacious and somewhat a heroic filmmaker.
by Bruna Foletto Lucas
Bruna is passionate about films, especially horror films – a love she has grown to be proud of in spite of all of the eye rolls she has lived through. Her favourite films are Halloween, Scream and Cabaret. She has a MA in Film Studies by Kingston University, where she was able to go through a cathartic experience whilst writing her dissertation on women directors of horror films. Her writings can also be found on London Horror Society and UK Film Review. You can find her ranting on Twitter @Bruna_FinalGirl and posting nonsense stories on Instagram @foletto.b