October 27, 2022
by Carla Hay
Directed by Daniel Stamm
Some language in Latin with no subtitles
Culture Representation: Taking place in Rome and an unnamed city in the United States, the horror film “Prey for the Devil” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few Latinos and black people) representing the working-class and middle-class.
Culture Clash: A Catholic nun defies the Catholic Church’s policy of forbidding women to perform exorcisms, around the same time that the nun develops an emotional bond with a 10-year-old girl who is believed to be possessed by the devil.
Culture Audience: “Prey for the Devil” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of exorcism horror movies, but the movie’s often-silly plot and sluggish pacing diminish any horror that would have had more of an impact.
“Prey for the Devil” is yet another half-baked horror movie with a scattered plot, made worse by a very weak ending. The exorcism scenes only provide occasional horror that has been used in many similar movies. The acting performances range from watchable to forgettable, but these performances are undercut by a lot of very hokey dialogue. If 1973’s “The Exorcist” is the gold standard for exorcism horror movies, then “Prey for the Devil” is like a wooden, counterfeit coin.
Directed by Daniel Stamm and written by Robert Zappia, “Prey for the Devil” (which is titled “The Devil’s Light” in some countries outside the U.S.) is a movie that seems to want to say and do a lot in the story, but it’s the equivalent of someone telling a story while mumbling and going off on different tangents, with occasional outbursts that might catch people’s attention. Some characters and subplots are introduced, and could have been intriguing additions, but nothing really happens with these characters and subplots, which ultimately go nowhere. The movie also has very unrealistic portrayals of the lifestyles of Roman Catholic nuns and priests.
“Prey for the Devil” begins by showing an American girl named Ann Kraja (played by Debora Zhecheva), who’s about 7 or 8 years old, praying intensely in a room. The door is locked from the inside, and her unnamed mother (played by Koyna Ruseva) is pounding vigorously on the door and demanding that Ann let her inside. The mother uses her fists to pound on the door. And then, the mother uses her head to try to break down the door.
The movie then abruptly cuts to a scene showing an adult Ann, who is now a 25-year-old Catholic nun in an unnamed U.S. city. (“Prey for the Devil” was actually filimed in Sofia, Bulgaria.) Sister Ann (played by Jacqueline Byers) is being interviewed by a psychiatrist named Dr. Peters (played by Virginia Madsen) in a private office meeting.
Dr. Peters is asking Sister Ann to describe Ann’s mother and Ann’s childhood. (Ann’s father is not seen or mentioned in the movie.) It’s revealed in this interview and in flashbacks that Ann’s mother, who is now deceased, had schizophrenia and was very abusive to Ann. For example, Ann’s mother would tear out Ann’s hair while brushing it. Ann’s mother would also frequently beat her.
Sister Ann explains that she knew since she was a child that her mother had some type of mental illness. However, Sister Ann believes that something else was behind her mother’s abusiveness: “It was the thing inside her. She was possessed.” Sister Ann also vividly remembers that her mother would sing a particular song around the same time that the mother would inflict abuse on Ann as a child. This “demon’s song” becomes a recurring plot device throughout the movie.
Why is Sister Ann undergoing a psychiatric exam by Dr. Peters? Dr. Peters works with the Catholic Church in preparing clergy who will be learning about how to perform exorcisms. The clergy people who want to perform exorcism rituals must pass a psychiatric exam to make sure that they are mentally fit for these rituals. Near the beginning of “Prey for the Devil,” captions mention that the Catholic Church began formally teaching exorcism rituals in 1835, and the Catholic Church began teaching exorcism rituals outside of Rome in 2018.
The Catholic Church only allows male priests to perform exorcisms, but Sister Ann is eager to learn what she can, so she is allowed to attend exorcism classes on an audit basis. She’s one of only a few nuns in a classroom full of priests. The chief instructor/professor is Father Quinn (played by Colin Salmon), a Brit who likes to talk as if he’s always giving a sermon and doling out his own proverbs. At first, Father Quinn is reluctant to let Ann attend his classes, but he gradually learns to respect Ann for her determination to learn and willingness to be as helpful as possible.
Father Quinn is the type of priest who will say in his class lectures: “Demons are the foot soldiers of the devil … We have to understand the correct points of attack.” But if Father Quinn is a wannabe military-like general in this war against the devil, the movie presents some scenarios where Father Quinn is made to look woefully inept when it comes to handling real exorcisms, not simulated training sessions.
Sister Ann soon ends up becoming friendly with two priests in the class: Father Dante (played by Christian Navarro) and Father Raymond (played by Nicholas Ralph), who are both in their late 20s or early 30s. Father Dante is a former gang member who looks at Sister Ann often as if he’s physically attracted to her. Just because Catholic priests and nuns take vows of celibacy doesn’t mean they lose the ability to experience sexual attraction.
Father Raymond also seems to find Sister Ann attractive, but he isn’t as obvious about it as Father Dante is. Sister Ann is very aware that these two men think that she’s pretty, and she somewhat flirts with them in a scene where she winks at both of them in class. Does any of this sexual tension have anything to do with the exorcism story? No, but it’s an example of how the “Prey for the Devil” seems like it’s starting a subplot, and then just leaves it to dangle unresolved.
Around the same time that Sister Ann begins attending these exorcism classes, she meets a patient in a local psychiatric hospital named Natalie (played by Posy Taylor), a 10-year-old girl whose single mother is convinced that Natalie is possessed by the devil. One of the oddest things about “Prey for the Devil” is that Natalie’s mother (played by Yana Marinova) is essentially a background character who’s barely in the movie. Most of Natalie’s scenes in the movie show Natalie without any parental supervision.
Natalie is an inquisitive and precocious girl who seems to have an instant connection to Sister Ann when they first meet each other. Natalie tells Sister Ann within minutes of meeting her in the hospital, “You’re my favorite person here.” Something from Ann’s past is eventually revealed. And as soon as it’s revealed, it becomes very obvious why Natalie formed an immediate bond with Ann.
Sister Ann’s first impressions of Natalie are that Natalie is a sweet and harmless child. But it isn’t long before Natalie has a demon possession episode that Sister Ann witnesses with Father Quinn, Father Dante and Father Raymond. Father Quinn has instructed Father Dante and Father Raymond to perform the exorcism rituals on Natalie, but things get out of control, and someone in this group gets seriously injured when the demon-possessed Natalie attacks.
This exorcism scene is one of the best in “Prey for the Devil,” because it has the type of horror that should have been more prevalent in this movie. There are the expected wild-eyed hissings and extreme body contortions (through visual effects) that demon-possessed people usually have in exorcism movies. A visually striking scene involves Natalie’s hair that plunges down her mouth and then seems to have the ability to strangle. It’s the closest that “Prey for the Devil” comes to having an original scare, which is probably why this scene is featured in the movie’s poster.
But these horror moments come in stops and starts. “Prey for the Devil” has long stretches where not much happens except that Sister Ann becomes more rebellious about what she’s not allowed to do as a nun learning exorcism rituals. She has a stereotypically stern Mother Superior named Sister Euphemia (played by Lisa Palfrey), who is appalled that Sister Ann doesn’t want to follow the traditional gender roles of Catholic Church clergy. Father Dante also has a rebellious streak, so it’s easy to figure out what will happen when Sister Ann and Father Dante become close friends.
Sister Ann’s determination to continue to learn exorcism rituals gets to the point where an emergency meeting is held with a church official named Cardinal Matthews (played by Ben Cross), who has to decide if Sister Ann can continue her exorcism studies under Father Quinn’s tutelage. (Cross died in August 2020, at the age of 72, which gives you an idea of how long ago “Prey for the Devil” was filmed. The movie lists a brief dedication to Cross during the end credits.)
Just when you think that Natalie’s demonic possession will be the focus of the movie …. surprise! “Prey for the Devil” throws in a subplot about Father Dante’s younger sister Emilia (played by Cora Kirk) experiencing demonic possession too. Emilia was an unwed expectant mother whose pregnancy ended in a miscarriage. Or did it? She’s been bedridden with what appears to be depression ever since. You can easily predict how Emilia’s pregnancy issues will be used in a horror scene.
One of the biggest problems with “Prey for the Devil” is that it plays fast and loose with depicting the lifestyles of Catholic nuns and priests. Sister Ann is probably the most glamorous nun her parish has ever seen, with her shoulder-length platinum blonde hair (which is very flashy by nun standards) often styled like the actress that Byers is. Catholic nuns are supposed to have modest appearances when it comes to their hair, which is why most Catholic nuns wear their hair short or cover their hair with veils. Although Sister Ann does wear veils sometimes, when she doesn’t wear veils, she looks like she’s an actress about to go on a Hollywood audition.
The travel and leisure time of Catholic nuns and priests are usually strictly regulated and require their church’s approval. But there are scenes in the movie where Sister Ann and Father Dante seem to have an unrealistic amount of leisure time to globetrot like jet-setting clergy. Considering some of the things that Sister Ann and Father Dante do to get reprimanded by their clergy superiors, it’s unlikely that Sister Ann and Father Dante would have the type of travel freedom that’s depicted in the movie. All of this might sound like nitpicky details, but “Prey for the Devil” gets it wrong in these details—all indications of carelessness in the filmmaking.
Mostly, what’s disappointing about “Prey for the Devil” is how dull and unimaginative it is for the majority of the film. Byers looks like an actress who’s role-playing as a nun, which is why she isn’t completely convincing as Sister Ann, who wants to be taken seriously as a nun. Madsen’s Dr. Peters character is underdeveloped and is basically just in the movie to give Sister Ann pep talks telling Sister Ann not to give up.
Taylor’s portrayal of troubled child Natalie has some effectively creepy moments that are the few highlights of this boring horror movie. Salmon, Navarro, Ralph and Cross give competent performances as the male clergy, but none of these performances stands out as special. There’s nothing inherently wrong with any of the cast members’ acting, but it barely elevates the mediocre-to-bad material.
“Prey for the Devil” makes quasi-attempts to make social commentaries about sexism against women in the Catholic Church, as well as how some religions (such as Catholicism) will teach people to feel guilty about dictated morality, such as putting a stigma on pregnancy out of wedlock. But the movie has nothing clever to say about these social issues. Sister Ann wearing a priest’s robe and collar near the end of the movie doesn’t count as a clever statement of female empowerment.
The movie’s big climactic scene is a huge letdown, considering how “Prey for the Devil” could have ended in ways that are far superior to the movie’s underwhelming and very predictable conclusion to the final showdown. The movie’s visual effects are adequate, but visual effects are wasted if the overall story is subpar. And the movie’s very last scene looks like the filmmakers just ran out of ideas on how to end the film.
“Prey for the Devil” is ultimately a forgettable exorcism movie that doesn’t seem to care about bringing anything new or exciting to the sub-genre of exorcism horror. It squanders and fumbles many opportunities that shouldn’t have been squandered and fumbled. Therefore, viewers shouldn’t feel like “Prey for the Devil” is a “must-see” exorcism movie, because it’s not.
Lionsgate will release “Prey for the Devil” in U.S. cinemas on October 28, 2022.