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The Devil’s Light / Prey for the Devil

Director: Daniel Stamm (USA). Year of Release: 2022

A young girl is praying at her bedside. There is a knocking at her door. The handle turns and a woman’s voice asks to be let in. The pounding at the door gets louder, and soon the woman is bashing it violently with her head. Ann’s mother has schizophrenia. Sometimes she is very nice to her daughter. At other times she is psychotic. When brushing or combing hair, she often wilfully tears clumps out. It won’t be long before she commits suicide.

The opening credits tell us that the Catholic Church started teaching exorcism rituals in 1835. These lessons only took place in Rome until 2018. You read that right. Many church institutions only started teaching exorcism a few years ago. One of these is the medical institution where Ann – now Sister Ann – works, looking after mentally ill patients. The worst cases are still shipped off the Vatican for electroshock therapy and an over 90% chance of suicide or death by other means.

Although the exorcism lessons are for men only, natch, Ann slips into class, presuming that no-one will notice someone in a nun’s habit among all the priests. When she is threatened by a possessed patient, the head exorcist authorizes her to formally join the class for her own safety. Ann shows a particular talent at dealing with one patient, the 10-year old Natalie, by showing empathy with her rather than just flinging holy water at her and shouting at her in Latin.

If you’ve ever seen The Exorcist, or even parodies of The Exorcist, you know what happens next. Natalie starts climbing the walls and stigmata appear on her body. But Ann insists that there is a young girl in there somewhere, and rather than having a violent fight with the devil inside Natalie, Ann tries to communicate with the scared young child with whom she has previously played. Tellingly she says that the problem lies with the attacker, not with the innocent victim of his crime.

When I saw and reviewed Smile last week, I noted that quite a few critics were annoyed that it tried to be both metaphysical and superstitious – that the lead character was both traumatized and possessed by a demonic figure. I disagree, and think that this duality opened more potential that Smile was able to realise, Similarly, I find the fact that The Devil’s Light tries to bring together old horror tropes with a more contemporary sociological analysis makes it more interesting.

In the world of The Devil’s Light, the devil is real. In some early scenes we see Him taking possession of human beings, contorting their bodies and making them utter His words. However, as Ann argues, people are not equally susceptible to demonic possession. In particular, the devil finds it much more easy to possess people – mainly young women – who are riddled with shame and self-loathing. They value themselves so little that they invite the devil in.

One scene makes this particularly clear. The sister of a hot young priest has been possessed after she was raped and subsequently lost the child. It is never explicitly said, but it feels to me like she had an abortion. The devil enters her, not because she is a sinning child murderer, but because she is a young Catholic woman who has been told that women who have a medical operation to remove a foetus are beyond redemption. Society has taught this woman to hate herself.

I think we are entering a third wave of horror films. In the first wave, ghosts and devils were incontrovertible fact, and we just had to accept the genre’s logic. More recently a wave of films has tried to explain apparent demonic possession solely through individual psychological trauma. Films like Smile and The Devil’s Light appear to be returning to the old rules, but confronting them with social realities like institutional sexism, child abuse and society’s refusal to listen to victims of abuse.

The Devil’s Light is uncompromising in its criticism of the patriarchal hierarchy of the Catholic church. Early on, a female psychologist explains to the assembled priests and nuns how many early recorded cases of possession were simply women being punished for trying to voice their opinions. Later, the psychologist gives Ann a copy of “The Body Keeps The Score” – a book used with many modern treatments of trauma. Apart from the Bible, it is the only book cited by the film.

At the same time, the psychiatrist concedes that there have been cases which science has so far been unable to explain. She says that she likes to hear both sides of the story, and shows a great knowledge and understanding of Catholic history. This does not mean that The Devil’s Light ever sinks into mysticism, but it does understand, unlike the Dawkinsite dogmatists, that for many people religion can be the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of our soulless conditions.

The result is something which is highly critical of the Vatican’s way of running things, while still being a very Catholic film. Its main demand is not the abolition of the Papacy but that women should be allowed to perform exorcisms too. It retains an ultimately conservative logic, while showing clearly progressive politics.

For some reason, most reviews have seen The Devil’s Light as being merely superficial, at best a bit of fluff to be enjoyed for its distraction value. Few have even noticed that it is imbued with many modern debates about psychological treatment. This may not be your thing, and certainly not what you’re looking for in a late night horror film. That’s fair enough, but I have the feeling that too many critics have dismissed the film because they have missed what it is trying to say.

Take it or leave it, but make sure you treat The Devil’s Light with the respect that it deserves.

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