2022 has been a pretty lackluster year for the horror genre. It’s been a year where “big swings” by filmmakers have become more important than good stories or (dare I say it) actual scares. It’s been a year where several old franchise favorites have returned in what amounted to pretty dreadful reboots. Thankfully there have been a few welcomed exceptions such as “Pearl”, “Smile”, “Fresh”, and “Orphan: First Kill”. Otherwise it has been pretty unremarkable.
New to the fold is “Prey for the Devil”, a supernatural horror film from director Daniel Stamm and screenwriter Robert Zappia. Arriving just in time for Halloween, “Prey” doesn’t do much to change the course of the 2022 horror movie year. And while it might grab itself an audience who are hungry for some holiday frights, it’s unlikely to stick with you for very long afterwards. That’s because it plows some very familiar ground, and it doesn’t give us much that we haven’t seen before. Yet it has a few things going for it that helps make it fairly entertaining.
Jacqueline Byers plays Sister Ann, an ambitious young nun with a troubled past who finds herself face-to-face with a malevolent demon that’s had its eye on her since she was a child. Sister Ann grew up in a troubled home with an abusive mother (Konya Ruseva in flashbacks) who was diagnosed with depression and schizophrenia. But Ann loved her mother and was convinced there was something else wrong. That belief and her childhood trauma led her to become a nun where she began learning about possession.
Noting a sudden increase in possessions around the globe, the Vatican decides to reinstitute exorcism training. Sister Ann has an immediate interest, but women are prohibited from performing the rite of exorcism. But she finds an advocate in Father Quinn (a solid Colin Salmon) who admires her eagerness and recognizes her special gifts. He agrees to let her sit in as an observer as he trains a group of young priests. This doesn’t sit well with the stern Sister Euphemia (Lisa Palfrey) or the skeptical psychiatrist Dr. Peters (Virginia Madsen). But Father Quinn sees something in our protagonist.
As expected, their training quickly turns into something much more sinister after Father Quinn and his group of exorcists-to-be encounter a 10-year-old girl named Natalie (Posy Taylor). Her family believes she may be possessed (I suppose sudden scars all over her body, the snarling voice, and ability to climb walls like Spider-man can lead to such suspicions). As the evil spirit starts manifesting itself in more violent ways, Sister Ann begins to suspect it’s the same demon that tormented her late mother. With the help of her friend and fellow trainee Father Dante (Christian Navarro), Sister Ann covertly bends a few church rules to prepare for what’s to come. It leads to an inevitable supernatural showdown that unfortunately fizzles rather than frightens.
Surprisingly, the movie’s strongest moments aren’t the one-on-ones with the demon. Those scenes are pretty by-the-book and come packaged with many of the usual tricks – milky eyes, gnarly body contortions, super-human strength, etc. Instead it’s the more serious-minded procedural aspect of the training, the church politics, the internal discussions over the Vatican’s process of handling “terminal” possession cases. There’s also an interesting consideration of the psychological versus the supernatural. Sure, all of these things could have been explored more. But they add some unique and compelling layers to the story.
There are also things to appreciate about Stamm’s direction, such as his use of silence which leads to some legitimate edge-of-your-seat tension. And there’s a couple of good jump scares that actually don’t feel annoyingly cheap. Stamm also gets some fitting atmosphere from his Sofia, Bulgaria shooting locations. On a sad note, the brilliant Ben Cross who plays Cardinal Matthews passed away only ten days after finishing his scenes. This marks the final feature film for the talented English actor.
Interesting bits aside, “Prey for the Devil” still can’t quite get over the hurdle of familiarity. There’s just too much that feels rehashed from countless other films. And it’s not helped by a rather unsatisfying ending that doesn’t exactly provide the payoff the film needs. It’s a visually dark and murky climax by choice that, rather than adding atmosphere, just makes it tougher to decipher than it needs to be. Together, these frustrations are simply too pronounced, and the movie doesn’t have enough ingenuity of its own to overcome them. “Prey for the Devil” is now showing in theaters.