Found footage horror is so played out that they've already come up with a new visual storytelling hook to replace it: the single screen movie (which can be seen in Unfriended, its sequel Dark Web, and the upcoming John Cho missing persons picture Searching). However, no amount of Paranormal Activity sequels or knock-offs are going to stand in the way of young filmmakers attempting to smash these rotten grapes into sweet wine. The Devil's Doorway is the latest in this string of mostly lazy attempts at fooling the audience into believing that the horrific images they're watching unfold are somehow "real"; an assemblage of "lost" reels that are usually digitally constructed in the post-Blair Witch age into a narrative crammed full of spooky ghosts and folks telling the camera just how "scared" they are.
So, count this writer as being totally shocked to find that The Devil's Doorway – a new found (*ahem* "suppressed") footage film from first time UK feature director Aislinn Clarke – is pretty damn good. Presented as a compilation of Bolex reels shot circa 1960 at a home for "fallen women" (read: prostitutes, single mothers and wayward nuns), this nightmare of demonic possession owns the tangible texture of a 16mm period piece, right down to its 1.37 frame. Where many found footage narratives seemingly use the form to try and cover up for their authors' lack of visual command, Clarke actually mixes in a series of deftly composed set ups amidst the usual running POVs and "dropped" camera angles (that just happen to catch a supernatural apparition as it passes). The end result is a playful retooling of the form that will still feel wholly familiar for its remaining enthusiasts, while offering up legitimate scares under the guise that the Catholic Church “doesn’t want you to see these images”.
The story concerns Fathers Thomas Riley (Lalor Roddy) and John Thornton (Ciaran Flynn) – the latter of whom is our trusty cameraman – who've been sent by the Vatican to investigate an incident regarding a statue of the Virgin Mary weeping blood at a Church-run Magdalene Laundry. The priests are coldly received by the institution's officious Mother Superior (Helena Bereen), as she blames the Church for under-funding her operation and generally treating her and the Sisters she commands like spiritual janitors, mopping up the messes the commanders of their faith leave behind (though the Mother may also be harboring some secrets of her own). Father John is fresh out of the seminary, bright-eyed and still looking for (and eagerly willing to believe in) any signs of a miracle from God. His older colleague is a literal Doubting Thomas, having debunked many mysteries of faith during his years donning the cloth. "This is a waste of your film," this anointed Roger Murtaugh growls at John, letting him know that the Laundry (and by extension, the Church) "disgusts" him.
Of course, their latest search involves not a miracle, but perhaps an act of pure Devilry, as they discover young Kathleen O'Bryan (Lauren Coe), who's been chained up in the Laundry’s basement, pregnant and seemingly possessed by some malevolent force. This leads to Fathers Riley and Thornton to uncover a series of sinister goings-on, each revelation layered on top of the last to create a cascading waterfall of black Satanism. All the while, Clarke works with production designer John Leslie and cinematographer Ryan Kernaghan (Bad Day For the Cut) to create a distinct sense of space inside this clandestine arena of religious secrets. So, while the story hits many beats you see coming from a million miles away, it's still incredibly easy to get wrapped up in this period spook show. The crew is working to sell us on the reality of a forgotten realm that's been haunted by both real world cruelty and supernatural entities, instead of simply relying on camera tricks, funky editing and jump scares to stir the audience up (though there are plenty of those to be had, as well).
Unfortunately, The Devil's Doorway still suffers from some common maladies that plague the found footage mode of horror. While Father John being brought in to "document" the duo's findings often explains away why he won't put the damn camera down, he still keeps filming after most would've stowed their lens away long ago. Despite the relative economy of both Clarke, Martin Brennan and Martin Jackson's script (hitting plot points with pleasing quickness) and Brian Philip Davis' cutting – which keeps The Devil's Doorway to a tight seventy-six minutes – the final act still devolves into our frazzled protagonists wandering through a darkened maze, while we wait for a menacing apparition to pop out and grab them at any moment. Still, as far as works that tweak and improve their form, you could do a lot worse than The Devil's Doorway. Clarke's debut announces a gifted, innovative talent with a solid eye and sense for what scares the shit out of us when the lights cut out.
The Devil's Doorway opens in select theaters and on VOD today.