Prey For The Devil is a movie possessed not by demons but by a lack of purpose. Like forces competing for the soul of this narrative, its dominant thematic threads are at war with one another, slammed together in attempted harmony but instead shambling around as one story wears the flesh and appearance of another, leaving neither premise wholly intact in a film with the meat stripped from its bones. There are glimmers of potential throughout, but none of it adds up to a satisfying story due to a ruthless edit that breaks what little there might be to stand upon.
Ostensibly, the hook here is that, as possession rates rise throughout the world, there’s a school where Catholic priests train in the rite of exorcism by treating potentially possessed psychiatric residents. Enter Sister Ann (Jacqueline Byers), a nun whose own mother’s possession inspired her to enter the clergy. Although the rite is reserved solely for male clergy, sympathetic Father Quinn (Colin Salmon) allows her to sit in on his classes. But when a particularly powerful demon takes hold of young patient Natalie (Posy Taylor), Ann’s uniquely empathetic approach with the possessed begins to hint at a more evolved future for the Church’s battle against evil.
However, this faux-progressive battle of the sexes is mostly just set dressing, an underexplored idea that actually has very little to do with Sister Ann’s character arc. Instead, Ann’s is a story of generational trauma, where her encounters with the demon that possessed her mother have led to consequences in her life that have, in turn, been passed along to others. That’s all well and good, but Prey For The Devil has trouble consistently following that idea through a tangle of internal mythologies, not to mention a narrative bogged down by underdeveloped characters and subplots, resulting in tenuous connections at best between her journey and its themes of medicinal empathy and recovery from trauma.
This is at least in part the product of a mercenary edit that cuts the film down to a trim 93 minutes. Nominally important fellow students Father Dante (Christian Navarro) and Father Raymond (Nicholas Ralph) are introduced with knowing glances that hint at past relationships—possibly better established in scenes cut for time—while resident psychologist Dr. Peters (Virginia Madsen) primarily serves as a wall off of which Ann can bounce life story exposition in a half-hearted framing device. The film manages to remain only barely coherent, by prioritizing the information necessary to show a literal sequence of connected events, rather than telling a story with actual thematic weight or characters who have more to say than whatever moves that plot forward.
The emphasis has clearly been placed on preserving the scares, but there’s nothing particularly inspired about Prey For The Devil’s interpretation of possession. Bodies contort, skin breaks, profanities are slung in distorted voices, and the possessed teleport to surprising places between cuts, usually purposely edited to do so. The most unique set piece is a moment where Natalie’s hair jumps down her own throat, but even that doesn’t carry the weight it should in the scene’s rushed context. In a strictly workmanlike sense, the film hits the appropriate horror beats; but without the matching emotional resonance to support these scenes, they might as well be a disconnected reel of shots cribbed from better films.
There isn’t even a sense of unintentional fun that can often come from films of this scrapyard caliber, because its deadly serious tone plants the film firmly in a reality that seems entirely at odds with a setting that bears a closer resemblance to Charles Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters than the halls of Catholic antiquity. This is a film that takes a second-act detour to become bogged down in a guilt-ridden morass of coping with rape, abortion, and teenage pregnancy, heavy topics that can and should certainly be examined within the context of Catholics grappling with their faith, but feel wildly out of place in a movie that is clearly more concerned with delivering as many cheap, expedient scares as it can.
The most frustrating thing about Prey For The Devil is that there seems to be a good movie somewhere in this patchwork of themes and pastiches. While it’s doubtful that a longer, more fleshed-out cut would be much better—likely trading tight pacing for exhaustive set-up and minimal extra payoff—it might at least have drawn a more thoughtful connection between Sister Ann’s internal turmoil and her role within the gender-divided world where she makes her stand. Instead, we’re left with a very serious film wearing the too-tight skin of a much sillier one, and the strain is too much for the flesh to bear.