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The term “Magdalene Laundries” doesn’t mean too much to American ears (perhaps unless you’ve seen Stephen Frears’ Philomena), but director Aislinn Clarke’s new horror film, a found footage period piece titled The Devil’s Doorway, might help to change that. The phrase refers to what essentially were church-run “homes” for Ireland’s “fallen women,” where women of all ages were sent to for a number of reasons — they were pregnant out of wedlock, they weren’t virgins, they didn’t listen to orders from powerful men — and were practically enslaved, forced to work at giant laundries under the thumbs of supervising nuns. It goes nearly without saying that these were not nice places to live in, with several scandals arising after mass graves were found beneath or nearby these places. It’s a dynamic setting for a horror film, and Clarke’s skillful direction and palpable sympathy for these women prevents The Devil’s Doorway from falling down an exploitation black hole (not that it would have been a bad thing, necessarily).
Two priests, the elder Father Thomas (an excellent Lalor Roddy) and the youthful Father John (Ciaran Flynn), are sent by a Bishop to examine some strange goings-on at a Madeline Laundry somewhere in Ireland. Apparently a number of statues of the Virgin Mary have begun crying blood and, in order to prove this miracle to others, John is asked to film their visit. The young priest is excited to potentially see a miracle, while the doubting Thomas isn’t able to stomach the cruelty perpetuated upon these women by the bitter Mother Superior (Helena Bereen) and her flock of nuns. Soon after they arrive, creepy things begin to happen: John glimpses the specters of children playing in the hallways, odd noises are heard, and, sure enough, the statues begin crying blood once again. Their quest for answers — Thomas wants to be sure it is a real miracle — lead them to the bed of a young and tortured pregnant woman named Kathleen (Lauren Coe) who may or may not be possessed by the devil.
The most startling aspect of The Devil’s Doorway its period aesthetic, as it maintains its grimy 16mm look throughout, with well-timed transitions coming at the end of each reel of film used in the in-world production process. The sound design is even better, which replicates the somewhat-tinny flat sounds that microphones used to pick up when dealing with its human characters, but expands into modern, clearer soundscapes when dealing with the supernatural. It’s a really well-staged and thought-out project, unlike some of its forbearers (the astonishingly stupid Apollo 18, for one), and the only true misstep, aside from some logistical questions that are only unearthed as the credits roll, is the use of non-diagetic music in several of scenes. It’s not needed as anything other than signage that says to the viewer “You don’t need to be scared yet,” but I would have found the tension unbearable and significantly more propulsive if it was left out.
Her skill at developing set-pieces, such as a deeply creepy birth, in which the camera lingers on Coe in an upsetting and sad fashion, and a journey through the catacombs beneath the laundry near the end of the film, illuminated by a blinking close-to-death lightbulb, would make less talented filmmakers envious. There’s a Hereditary-like shift into new thematic territory near the end, but it’s a little less galling here, given that the word “devil” is quite literally in the film’s title. You’ve got to wonder, however, if a setting like a Magdalene Laundry is even more effectively terrifying to modern eyes without the presence of the dark lord himself. Still, the excellent character work done by our leads, which helps to smooth over some of the cracks in the story, and Aislinn’s skilled direction make The Devil’s Doorway a compelling and deeply visceral experience, one scary enough to spook any number of interested horror fans. I’m really excited to see what Aislinn does next, because The Devil’s Doorway is a debut to be proud of.
The Devil’s Doorway hits theaters and VOD on July 13.