Major spoilers ahead for Prey for the Devil. You’ve been warned.
As someone who was raised Catholic, religious horror flicks have always been a favorite of mine. Right or wrong, the ritual, the ceremony and the mythology of Catholicism has always been endlessly fascinating to me – and from a storytelling standpoint, rich with possibilities. This explains why, ever since The Exorcist (1973) showed us just how heartbreaking and terrifying the fight between good and evil can be, Hollywood’s been chasing that same massive success ever since.
Enter Prey for the Devil, the latest to try and capture that brass ring – but this time, with a female protagonist. The story begins after a wall of text explains that the Catholic Church, in response to the marked rise in cases of possible demonic possession (which is actually true), has opened up schools around the world in order to train priests in the rites of exorcism and treat the “afflicted” in state-of-the-art, hospital-like facilities.
Sister Ann (Jacqueline Byers) is one of the nuns working at the facility in Boston. She has a special interest in studying possession stemming from her childhood, as a flashback/dream shows us. In a session with the facility’s resident psychiatrist, Dr. Peters (Virginia Madsen), Ann tells how her mother (Koyna Ruseva) suffered from what was diagnosed as schizophrenia. She subjected young Ann to terrible abuse until she finally committed suicide. But Ann (and all of us) know better – it was demonic possession, not mental illness.
Unfortunately, Sister Ann has to fight her way through the establishment, as the Church’s rule has always been that only priests – that is, only men – can be trained as exorcists. Nuns are only allowed to be agents of healing and comfort. But Sister Ann defies her decidedly old-school superior (Lisa Palfrey) and sits in on classes led by respected exorcist Father Quinn (Colin Salmon), much to the chagrin of the other young priests – except for her only friend, Father Dante (Christian Navarro, from 13 Reasons Why).
Father Quinn recognizes a special talent in Sister Ann. She has a kind, empathetic way about her that the patients respond to – especially a little girl named Natalie (Posy Taylor), who’s been brought in for observation. They bond over her colorful drawings and have a cute and funny conversation about the origins of nougat. But it isn’t long before the demon infesting Natalie’s body makes itself known. Natalie is taken to the basement, where they keep the more dangerous cases.
Father Quinn has Father Dante and another trainee, Father Raymond (Nicholas Ralph), go into Natalie’s cell to attempt an exorcism, basically to practice their training. But in the face of the actual demon, who goes through the usual tropes of climbing on the ceiling and stuff like that, Dante and Raymond are basically too scared to do anything but stand there and gape. Even Father Quinn himself gets injured when he tries to intervene. It’s only when Sister Ann arrives that things change. But it’s also when Sister Ann realizes that the demon possessing Natalie is the same one who possessed her mother.
Seeing her talents in action, Father Dante asks Ann to help him with his sister Emilia (Cora Kirk), who he believes is also possessed but hasn’t been able to get any help for. When they go to her and begin the rite, Dante reveals to Ann that his sister was raped and became pregnant as a result. She gave up the child and still suffers tremendous guilt and shame over it. Ann realizes that’s how the demon found its way in, through that vulnerability that made her spiritually weak.
Sister Ann uses her empathy to speak directly to Emilia instead of attacking the demon. Her kindness and assurance that God loves her no matter what she’s been forced to do seem to overwhelm the demon, getting it to relinquish its hold. But before it disappears, Emilia confronts Ann with some preternatural knowledge – that Sister Ann herself also got pregnant as a teenager and gave up her child.
Turns out, though, that Ann and Dante didn’t fully exorcise the demon – they only got it to retreat for a time. And what seemed like a victory turns into a tragedy, as Emilia ends up killing herself. This gets Ann, Dante and pretty much everybody in huge trouble with Church official Cardinal Matthews (the late, great Ben Cross in his last role). And Sister Ann decides that she needs to give up her calling and go back to her convent and just be a regular nun.
But soon after, Natalie returns to the facility after a sudden relapse that turns deadly. She ends up killing several people – and gives Father Dante a rosary that once belonged to Sister Ann. When Dante shows it to her, Ann realizes it’s the same rosary that she gave to her child – which means that Natalie is the child she gave up.
So Natalie’s brought to the basement under the basement. Here, the catacombs contain a huge fountain of holy water that was once used to drown people thought to be possessed. Dante sneaks Ann back into the facility to confront Natalie. Desperate to save her long, lost child, Sister Ann offers to take the demon into herself – but once she does, the demon tries to kill both Natalie and Dante.
Still fighting inside, Sister Ann remembers her mother and how she was only able to save Ann by killing herself. So Ann dives into the fountain and drowns herself – and between her sacrifice and the blessed water, the demon is finally defeated. Dante manages to resuscitate Ann, and all is well, and everyone’s safe.
A recovered Natalie says a heartfelt goodbye to her favorite nun and returns home with her adopted family. She never learns that Ann is her real mother. And after her own recovery, Sister Ann receives a tremendous reward for her bravery – a scholarship to study at the Vatican and become the first female exorcist in centuries. But while she’s in a taxi on her way to the airport, she’s suddenly confronted by more demons, possessing the bodies of people on the street and the taxi driver. With new confidence in her abilities, Sister Ann whips out her crucifix, ready to do battle.
When I first saw the trailers for Prey for the Devil (or The Devil’s Light, as it’s being released in some countries), I knew that it wouldn’t be The Exorcist. Because let’s face it, nothing can be. However, I was hopeful that it might be a story that would be at least as scary and affecting as The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005) or director Daniel Stamm’s own The Last Exorcism (2010).
Unfortunately, Prey for the Devil falls way short of even those. While Jacqueline Byers turns in a terrific performance as Sister Ann, the story isn’t handled nearly as well. It can’t decide what it wants to be – a straightforward religious horror story or something with more of a fantastical, sort-of superhero feel like Constantine (2005). So it bounces back and forth between them, and as a result, doesn’t do either very well. And using the same horror tricks and jump scares we’ve seen so many times before just makes the flick seem even more tired. This is a shame because the idea of seeing more of Sister Ann battling the Devil’s Army is still really appealing. I’d be up for that.
Directed by: Daniel Stamm
Written by: Robert Zappia
Release Date: Oct. 28, 2022
Running Time: 1hr, 33 min
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