Ever since The Exorcist rocked America in 1973, we're gotten a fairly steady series of horror movies about exorcisms. Incredibly few of them take the right lesson from William Friedkin's classic, though. They're all about the shock-scares, rather than the ideas underneath. Prey for the Devil is the latest example. Far from the worst exorcism story ever, it nevertheless squanders a potentially riveting premise in favor of the same old, same old.
Sister Ann (Jacqueline Byers) is a nun working in a Catholic hospital run by Dr. Peters (Virginia Madsen). She has bigger goals, hoping to study exorcism. A chance presents itself when one of her patients, little Natalie (Posy Taylor), is revealed to be possessed by a demon. Because they had been friendly beforehand, Sister Ann is able to overstep her bounds and tame that demon. Exorcism professor Father Quinn (Colin Salmon) pulls a few strings with the Cardinal (Ben Cross), allowing her to attend – but not formally enroll in – his classes.
Things go haywire from there. Another priest, Father Dante (Christian Navarro), asks her to perform an unsanctioned exorcism on his pregnant sister. That goes poorly. Then it becomes clear that the demon inside Natalie has Sister Ann in its sights. She has to figure out why before it's too late. What she discovers is not entirely surprising, although it does lead to a finale involving an underground fountain filled with holy water, something I'm 100% certain every Catholic institution has in its basement.
Prey for the Devil starts from a solid premise: Sister Ann becomes the first woman ever allowed by the Catholic church to study exorcism. In keeping with that idea, we're told that her strength is her feminine nurturing. She's able to “see past the demon” to reach the person being held hostage inside their own body. It's an appealing twist on the format, suggesting that the story will offer a thoughtful challenge to the church's male-centric attitude. Or maybe comment on the power of compassion to defeat malevolence.
Director Daniel Stamm (who also made The Last Exorcism) and writer Robert Zappi frustratingly rush through those ideas, never fleshing them out to the degree that they might make an impact. Their primary interest is in getting to the demon attacks. Aside from creating jump scares via abrupt loud noises on the soundtrack instead of from genuinely frightening content, the movie relies on elements that have become clichés. A character crab-walks up a wall, bodies contort themselves, eyes blacken, a demon hand emerges from a person's mouth, and so on. Not much new can be found here.
Jacqueline Byers is very appealing in the lead role. She seems prepped to dive into the themes Prey for the Devil introduces, then ignores. And with the great Virginia Madsen in the cast, the film could have presented an awesome new approach to the exorcism story, one from a woman's point of view. I've seen way worse entries in the subgenre – The Rite, The Devil Inside, Exorcist Vengeance – but few that were as disappointing. And a year from now, I won't be able to distinguish it from any of the others.
out of four
Prey for the Devil is rated PG-13 for violent and disturbing content, terror, thematic elements and brief language. The running time is 1 hour and 33 minutes.