Set in 1960, this Irish found footage horror film has stylistic and thematic parallels with both The Borderlands and The Apparition. Veteran priest Father Thomas Riley (Lalor Roddy) and younger Father John Thornton (Ciaran Flynn) – who handles the camera to keep a record of the case — investigate a statue of the Virgin Mary which seems to be weeping blood, and are drawn into shameful mysteries then overwhelmed by far less benign manifestations. The fresh wrinkle is that the location of the supposed miracle is a Magdalen Laundry, and the horrors at the heart of the story have echoes of the shocking stories that have come out of investigations into these long-standing, Catholic-run institutions, which were for two hundred years used to keep awkward, inconvenient or embarrassing women out of sight. ‘Do you know how many of the babies born here had fathers who were fathers?’ asks the Mother Superior (Helena Bereen) who sees herself as being in charge of hiding away the church’s sins – and punishing girls who have already been victimised. Father Thomas is a veteran of the investigation business, who has ‘never had an experience with the miraculous’, while John still expects to discover evidence of the divine rather than conjuring tricks, fraud or misunderstanding. Thomas has also seen so much human evil he doesn’t need to believe in Satanic influence, even after extensive paranormal activity in the laundry.
Directed by Aislinn Clarke, who co-wrote with producers Martin Brennan and Michael B. Jordan, this recreates the look (and aspect ratio) of 1960s home movies, though Clarke includes video diary-style sequences of Father John talking to the camera after he’s started glimpsing and hearing the spooky playful children Mother Superior insists are no longer kept in the house. Breaking with the strict documentary style, the film layers in an effective, sparse music score by Andrew Simon McAllister (who scored the documentary Hostage to the Devil) to augment the drips, creaks, titters, crunches, crackles and footfalls which continue even when the screen goes dark. More ghost story than possession drama, though demonic powers do show up, the film manages some effective spookery, with misdirection followed by a jump scare as the camera is drawn slowly, jerkily to creepy abandoned playthings before sudden movements or noises from unexpected regions of the frame interrupt. The deep anger at authentic church injustice makes an interesting contrast with the conservative, pro-Catholic (indeed, even pro-abuse) attitudes of high-profile demon movies like The Exorcist or The Exorcism of Emily Rose, delving into historical crimes committed out of hypocritical expedience rather than actual fanaticism.
It ventures into more conventional genre dark places as, like the church investigators in The Borderlands, the priests wind up exploring oppressive underground chambers – strewn with evidence of evil going back centuries – as found footage horror film conventions close in on them (‘these tunnels all look the same’) like crushing walls in a cliffhanger serial ending. Roddy, Flynn and Bereen are handed stock clergy types (boozing cynic, naïve idealist, oppressive tyrant) but give them real individuality as the characters are put under pressure. Roddy, in particular, is affecting when praying in the dark – though the answer that comes isn’t reassuring in the least. Clarke is a real genre talent.