With “The Last Exorcism,” which came out 12 years ago, director Daniel Stamm was thought by some to have brought back a subgenre. That movie was a surprise hit that wasn’t a classic, but it took itself seriously in the right ways, thanks to a good cast that included Ashley Bell, who is still underused.
Since 2014’s “13 Sins,” which didn’t do as well, he’s been busy with episodic TV work. His first movie in eight years is a return to the kinds of stories that worked for him in the past. “Prey for the Devil” probably won’t get as much attention as Stamm’s first big hit, even though it’s about a female exorcist, which isn’t as unusual (at least on screen) as it’s made out to be.
Last year’s “The Old Ways,” which was set in Veracruz, is just one example. Still, this is a decently entertaining possession thriller, even though it’s not very scary or memorable. Since there aren’t many other horror movies in theaters right now, it should do well enough with people looking for predictable scares this Halloween weekend.
At the beginning of Robert Zappia’s script, on-screen text tells us that the Catholic Church has opened a “School of Exorcism” in Boston because there are supposedly more cases of people being possessed by demons around the world.
Sister Ann (Jacqueline Byers), who came here from a convent as the only female trainee even though it is still against the doctrine for a woman to do any of an exorcist’s duties, is one of the students at this seminary, dorm, and hospital for the “afflicted.”
Still, she feels called to go in that direction, in part because she thinks her own violently abusive mother, Konya Ruseva, was possessed by demons that were more real than her schizophrenia. Sister Ann goes against the Academy’s rules, which Sister Euphemia (Lisa Palfrey) doesn’t like at all.
However, Father Raymond (Colin Salmon), the head teacher, and Dr. Peters, who is skeptical of religion, support her in different ways (Virginia Madsen). When Ann likes new patient Natalie (Posy Taylor), a 10-year-old whose family thinks she is possessed because she acts like it, they all have to break a few rules.
When her classmate and friend Father Dante (Christian Navarro) asks her to help his sister, who has the same problem, it shows that our main character may be a natural at exorcism (Cora Kirk). But it seems that these confused souls are just a way for “the Devil’s foot soldiers” to get to what they really want to get: Sister Ann.
What gives? So, because “God chose” her, whatever that means. We never find out the demon’s name, history, or anything else that would help us remember him: It’s just a generic way to make characters do the same contortions, stunts, makeup, and other horrifying things that Linda Blair did 50 years ago. This time, though, there was no pea soup.
The original “Exorcist” by William Friedkin was scary because it was so realistic. The people in it were just as horrified by what was happening as they were by the fact that it could happen. They could feel that rationality was being pulled out from under them like a rug.
But movies like “Prey for the Devil,” which is being released in some places as “The Devil’s Light,” live in a world of genre clichés. Demonic possession is no longer something that blows your mind. Instead, it’s a standard way to get jump scares and fantasy FX that you know and love.
There isn’t even a hint of originality, and the only sincerity is telling the actors not to make fun of the material. Still, these pretty good actors do keep a straight face, and the movie as a whole does too. Stamm’s scares aren’t too bad, either.
He hasn’t made a very exciting movie, but he’s also kept it from being boring or making people laugh by accident. This movie was shot in Bulgaria, but it could use more atmosphere. Even though the design is good and the format is widescreen, Denis Crossan’s cinematography has a flat, TV-like look.
Byers is likeable enough that we wouldn’t mind seeing her heroine again. But it remains to be seen if anyone will remember this first movie long enough to make the sequel that we were told (before a rote “boo!” blackout) would be like “Sister Exorcist 2: Vatican Boogaloo” in terms of plot.