Director: Daniel Stamm
Stars: Jacqueline Byers, Colin Salmon, Posy Taylor
If Prey for the Devil feels like it’s been locked in a mausoleum, it kinda has been. Completed in the summer of 2020, it has suffered a fate not unheard of for a Lionsgate horror and been left to languish for two years. Part of the delay we can blame on COVID, of course, but one can’t help but wonder if the execs were simply stuck with what to do with it.
A throwback to the kind of boo-factory possession yarn that turned up ten-a-penny on Netflix around a decade ago, Daniel Stamm’s film is wholly out of step with present horror trends, and it’s appearance now in cinemas feels like some kind of curious mistake. Ann (a game Jacqueline Byers) is a young sister with a calling to help the needy. With global rates of possession supposedly on the rise, the Catholic church begins hastily opening state-of-the-art exorcism schools that double as fancy sanitoriums for the poor afflicted. Ann – battling her own demons – challenges the norms of the church by stepping forward to take on the traditionally male role of exorcist.
She feels compelled to do so after meeting Natalie (Posy Taylor), a seemingly sweet child in the grip of some unholy monster that lurks within. Feeling a strong bond with this girl, Ann tackles Catholic heritage held dear by the likes of Cardinal Matthews (Ben Cross, who died shortly after principal photography was completed). She has an advocate by her side, however, in esteemed exorcism authority Father Quinn (Colin Salmon).
This angle of one woman bucking the trend of centuries is about the only card Prey for the Devil has going for it; one that is played half-heartedly as Ann meets absolutely no opposition throughout the course of the picture. The potential for drama here thwarted by a tepid – even cowardly – script, Prey for the Devil relies instead on an incredibly safe set of jump scares and heavily sign-posted plot turns. A fire escape confessional between Ann and young Father Dante (Christian Navarro) around the end of the first act foretells the entire picture to come (if you haven’t worked out the ‘surprise’ at the heart of the story already). Everything after this is just a matter of passing the time.
With little to maintain interest, director Stamm ensures that the cheap jumps arrive at a metronomic tempo. One every five to ten minutes or so. Most keenly he favours what I think of as the crosswalk approach (character looks left; character looks right; character looks left again – OMG!), but such tricks are so predictable that they don’t even elicit a reluctant, involuntary jolt. These measures – to a letter – flatline.
Otherwise, Prey for the Devil showcases cliché after cliché. The ol’ there’s-something-in-your-eye body horror moment, a bunch of hair stuff pulled from 20-year-old J-horror. And, of course, the clacking spinal contortions of a YouTube yoga workout video. Such tactics are dolled out as pure filler, their cluttered accumulation speaking of the paucity of other ideas to excuse a feature running time. Watching becomes an exercise and, frankly, a dull one.
Byers is the only real saving grace. The likes of Salmon and a peripheral Virginia Madsen do their due diligence, of course, but nobody seems particularly inspired by the thin material. Byers, however, sees the opportunity to get noticed here and puts in the work. Sister Ann is presented with a lot of pluck and gumption, which is appealing. It’s just a shame that her hairstyle and costuming is uncannily reminiscent of Rory Kinnear’s waspish priest from Men.
Try as she might, Byers is not enough to save this venture, which takes itself far too seriously for a film where the damned are locked up inside a facility that looks like The Initiative from Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Navigating a corridor of horror as tapped-out as this one takes ingenuity. It is possible, as Micky Reece proved so abundantly in recent months. Ending like it’s setting up a sequel and punching out on an eye-rolling cliffhanger is the only time that Prey for the Devil shows anything close to ambition. The idea of this becoming a breakout hit with franchise legs feels endearingly hopeful, if not downright naive. Shame such ambition doesn’t manifest anywhere that counts.