A tale as old as time; a representative of the catholic church must fight his inner demons to save the soul of a possessed child. prey for the devil tries to tell this tired story with the stuff of a budding exorcist but never manages to piece together a narrative that’s cohesive or chilling enough to rise above a patchwork of familiar possession horror tropes.
It’s 2018. Cases of demonic possession have become so frequent that the Catholic Church has created schools for the sole purpose of teaching priests the rite of exorcism while nuns act as bedside nurses to the possessed. Sister Anna (Jacqueline Byer) finds herself drawn to the role of exorcist, even sneaking into exclusive male classes taught by Father Quinn (Hake Salmon), much to the chagrin of his superior. Her persistent pursuit of exorcism studies and her personal approach to nursing ultimately put her at the forefront of the battle to rid young Natalie (Posy-Taylor) before his possession case became final.
by Robert Zappia the script prefers to tell rather than show, at least in world-building and storytelling. Sister Ann is a special chosen one with a traumatic childhood related to possession, but prey for the devil never presents in a concise and convincing way the why or the how. Instead, Ann’s gift seems based on nebulous concepts of empathy and deep guilt. This is the crux of the whole film; a series of undercooked plot points with no depth or purpose.
For example, Dr. Peters (Virginia Madson) coax Sister Ann’s exposure through their therapy sessions. Dr. Peters also works for the school, monitoring his locked up patients to determine if they are possessed or mentally ill. We understand this through simple dialogue early on, but we never see it in action to fully understand why a skeptic would assume this position or why the Church would enlist someone who disagrees with its ideology for its demon cleansing purposes. Dr. Peters is never more than a means to encourage Ann on an incoherent and vague path to greatness. Even exorcisms are not defined. Priests often stare at the possessed in horror, attempt to read a Bible verse, then cower until Sister Ann’s empathy prompts her to take over.
Director Daniel Stamm attempts to fill gaping story gaps with jump scares and horror imagery, often resorting to the same tactics of The Last Exorcism. Stamm uses a variety of cheap scare tactics in between bursts of overwrought emotional revelations for Sister Ann. There are no immediate telltale signs of possession, just a fuzzy notion that someone might be harboring a demon like spider-tingling sense. It is an attempt to catch the audience off guard when the presumed possessed releases his jaws, eyes roll back and body contorts backwards.
prey for the devil is messy and absurd. It’s so random in its ideas and plots that it makes less sense the more you think about it. There’s a lack of precision in its rules or lack of precision, and it creates some bizarre mixed messages – the clash of medicine and religion, to begin with. Or the subplot about Father Dante (Christian Navaro) and her sister seized with grief and guilt for having aborted a product of rape. Never mind that Sister Ann seems to harm everyone in her path and is heralded as a divine hero for it. It might be easier to ignore if one of the horrors had bitten.
It is as if prey for the devil praises himself for coming up with the innovative idea of a female exorcist and diversity within the school, then stops there lest it disrupt the status quo too much. Behind the gimmick is a tasteless, hollow exorcism horror movie we’ve seen countless times before. Instead of struggling with faith, the protagonist struggles to keep guilt and trauma at bay. A possessed little girl serves as the battlefield, complete with all the accessories of possession. prey for the devil achieves at least one thing; you will pray for the devil to end this madness.
prey for the devil is out in theaters now.