On the face of it, Daniel Stamm-directed Prey for the Devil seems a girl-bossification of exorcisms. The trailer depicts protagonist Sister Ann (Jacqueline Byers) as a woman not only destined for the cloth, but one who’s enticing prey for the devil for the simple fact that she is a marked woman, inexplicably chosen in the way that Father Karras in The Exorcist is. Watching the movie, however, one is pleasantly surprised to see that the film has a couple of meaty things to say about women in the overwhelmingly masculine space of Catholic spiritual healing. Though certain of Prey for the Devil’s aspects seem rushed or belabored vis-à-vis the sheer wealth of good and terrible exorcism movies that have come before it, there is something worthwhile in its feminist leanings, particularly when it comes to the questions it raises about femininity within Catholicism.
Based on a screenplay by Robert Zappia, which in turn is based on a story by Todd R. Jones and Earl Richey Jones, Prey for the Devil follows Ann, a young nun at a school for exorcisms. Ann is learning how to care for patients during and after they undergo exorcisms; only male priests are ordained to perform exorcisms, while nuns simply assist. As part of her training as a nun, she undergoes therapy with Dr. Peters (Virginia Madsen), who works at the school to provide the students an alternative, a psychological reading of historical Catholicism’s treatment of people thought to be possessed. We learn that Ann’s mother was possessed — Ann suffered horrifying abuse at her mother’s hands, abuse that Ann believes was doled out by the demon within her mother working to get its hands on Ann specifically. At the exorcism school, a girl under Ann’s care, Natalie (Posy Taylor), is apparently possessed by the same demon that was after her through her mother years before. The story follows Ann as she fights not only for the right to perform exorcisms, but also for her and Natalie’s souls.
Ann is constantly butting heads with her superiors at the school: the men and women of the old guard who believe a woman’s place in the church is to facilitate the work of the male priest. But Ann challenges this old idea every step of the way. Having forged a connection with the possessed Natalie, Ann is able to convince her superiors that she ought to take exorcism classes alongside the men.
This film is certainly full of commendable body horror typical of exorcism films: faces of the possessed contorting; limbs snapping and cracking; Natalie defying gravity as she scales a wall; a woman’s belly swelling with satanic forces; a hand bursting out of Natalie’s mouth. But one of the most compelling scenes is one that is, interestingly, less visually horrifying than it is metaphysically horrifying. After a failed attempt at exorcizing Natalie through the traditional deliverance of the rite, Ann confronts one of her teachers, Father Quinn (Colin Salmon), with pure and simple logic. Ann is upset by the ways in which priests tend to, are encouraged to forget about the victim when they are performing exorcisms. She and her colleagues are taught to focus instead and exclusively on the demon within the victim, addressing and beckoning only the demon within the human body with reference to its presence within Catholic mythology. Ann, in her friendship with Natalie and after experiencing empathetic therapy administered by Dr. Peters, finds it difficult to stand by and watch the young girl’s body suffer horrifically, all as men stand around her, their eyes glued to the words of the bible. This scene of Ann challenging Father Quinn is so compelling not only for the reason that we’ve never really seen such a meaningful confrontation of traditional Catholic ways in previous exorcism movies, but also because it’s the kind of audacity from a woman that would be more viscerally frightening to many Catholic folks than green vomit. Green vomit is expected, an angry woman isn’t. (It’s the kind of audacity frightening enough to force seventeenth-century philosopher René Descartes to flee from the base world to an austere objectivity, effectively founding a whole new branch of philosophy.)
Ann’s belief is that the victim ought to be the focus of an exorcism, not the demon; that the priest, male or female, ought to be attempting to forge a connection with the victim, speaking with them in a way reminiscent of how Madsen’s Dr. Peters speaks to Ann. A priest ought to understand the victim’s unique stories and use this understanding, not dusty mythology, to walk them away from the guilt that might have left the kind of space within them that the demon saw fit to fill. This is a type of healing that, as it foregrounds the particular and immediate concerns of the patient, is uniquely feminine; this is a type of healing that is one of the film’s most compelling aspects. Byers’ Ann is strident as she points out the ways in which Catholic tradition hurts the people it aims to help through a stubborn and masculine adherence to the letter of the rite. And it is this obstinate energy written into the film and so brilliantly carried throughout the plot by Byers’ Ann that individuates this movie, marking it different from a mere neoliberal rewriting of exorcism movies, one that might have maintained old orders and simply injected a female character into a role that could easily be for a male actor.
The insistence by Ann on the feminine approach to exorcisms is what makes Prey for the Devil worthwhile, along with her relationship with Dr. Peters. Madsen’s character is an interesting insertion here. Dr. Peters not only offers a scientific perspective when it comes to exorcisms, she is allowed to do so without much ridicule, with a certain amount of respect and authority she teaches a course within the exorcism school. Furthermore, the doctor plays an instructive or motherly force here — through her therapizing of Ann, her listening to Ann’s experiences, she ends up teaching Ann how a person ought to be, that a good leader ought to help patients by listening to their unique stories and therefrom work toward a cure as unique as the person is. Madsen’s role, though perhaps marginal, is mightily powerful in this film, for the simple fact that Dr. Peters is able to teach Ann how to approach her work with empathy.
Overall, the performance by Byers is good and the special effects and stage setting are compelling — there are plenty of cheeky nods to The Exorcist and other exorcism movies. And while these elements in and of themselves are not particularly noteworthy, especially in face of the many exorcism movies that already exist; and while there is a rich history and traditional ways to defer to when it comes to making an exorcism movie, Prey for the Devil is still a unique addition to the canon, one worth checking out for the way in which it offers a feminine perspective to one of Hollywood’s favorite ailments.