The Great Exorcism Swindle is alive and well thanks to director Daniel Stamm, whose erroneously titled The Last Exorcism was immediately followed by the Damien Chazelle-penned The Last Exorcism Part II. Now Stamm is back with Prey for the Devil, whose female exorcist scores a win for woke nunsense.
Sister Ann (Jacqueline Byers) enters a present-day American exorcism school where she becomes the first exorcist nun, following in the footsteps of the first lesbian nun (Benedetta) and the first demon nun (The Nun). But progress for the fictional Catholic Church makes no such gains for a genre that has never moved on from The Exorcist, which is to exorcism films as Jaws is to shark movies; the great white legend in a sea of floundering imitators. Prey for the Devil‘s adherence is so strict it makes its possessed child (Posy Taylor) the biggest Regan wannabe since Ted Cruz.
When Stamm isn’t ripping off William Friedkin he’s plagiarising himself, recycling all the wall-crawling, limb-jerking effects from The Last Exorcism to diminishing returns. He does pull off some effective jump scares, helped by the grand, grey backdrop from which they spring. But after a few back-bending levitations you’re more likely to call a chiropractor than an exorcist. It is unclear whether the patients are all possessed by the same demon or different ones, since they all seem to have some vengeful connection to Sister Anne. Also unexplained are why an exorcism hospital hires an agnostic sceptic (Virginia Madsen), or why a nun would bleach her hair.
Nevertheless the film does gets its points across, namely the Vatican blaming mental illness on the devil and holding back women from using their maternal strength to save the souls of children (maybe it sounded less sexist on paper). And though Anne has her own traumatic backstory, the movie doesn’t labour the point beyond all semblance of allegory. This renders it both scarier and subtler than Smile, with the kind of likeable lead missing from its pseudo-feminist counterparts Smile, Men and Scream 5. By only spending one scene between Anne and the little girl, it fails to build their relationship or much sense of mumentum. But in the pantheon of Exorcist knock-offs, Prey for the Devil is par for the curse.