By David Dent
The Devil’s Doorway
Aislinn Clarke is the first woman to direct a horror film in Northern Ireland. With that kind of focus, it was a bold move indeed to use the distinctly overused and now largely maligned ‘found footage’ format for her feature debut. But the good news is that Clarke pulls it off so spectacularly that every lame FF effort that has gone before is swiftly forgotten as The Devil’s Doorway’s sinister delights unspool.
We’re in Ireland in 1960, watching footage that has been shot of an inquiry, ostensibly into a statue of the Virgin Mary which has begun to bleed. The investigators are a pair of priests; hardbitten Father Thomas Riley and the younger camera wielding Father John Thornton.
But the possibility of filming a miracle is overshadowed by events within the building in which the statue is housed, both secular and, eventually, supernatural. For this is a Magdalen house, a facility where Catholic nuns shelter ‘fallen’ women, subjecting them to a degrading tough love based form of rule bordering on sadism.
The use of such facilities until late in the twentieth century is now a mark of shame for the country and it’s a brave calling card for the director to use relatively recent historical events as the basis for the supernatural turn that The Devil’s Doorway takes about half way through. Once the possession story takes hold, we’ve already seen enough glimpses of enough real life horror – the possession story that occupies the remainder of the film is no less creepy, but for very different reasons.
Clarke’s film succeeds for two very simple reasons; the quality of acting and the overall attention to detail. Lalor Roddy and Ciaran Flynn, playing Riley and Thornton respectively, bring a grit to proceedings which makes the documentary setup entirely plausible – something very easy to get wrong when handled by trained actors. The mix of believer and sceptic may be a cliché, but it works really well within the backdrop of the house and also helps ground the more supernatural elements.
Clarke is at pains to get the period feel right – she shot as much as her budget allowed on 16mm but the digital footage comprising the rest of the film has been seamlessly knitted in, and the whole film feels dowdy and threadbare. The Devil’s Doorway may eventually succumb to the FF standby of wandering around in tunnels but the story is strong enough to ward off boredom, and the final scenes pack a real punch that most movies shot in this format can’t hold a candle to.
Gaspar Noe is seemingly incapable of making a movie which at some point does not wish to shock you out of your seat. It’s in his directing DNA, and while there is a good argument for asking him to do something different, he is undeniably a superb filmmaker with an innate ability to control performance and image in a way that is both manipulative and revelatory.
After the excesses of his 2015 film Love, Noe is clearly playing with us by entitling his latest offering Climax. But of course the sexual connotation of the word is just one of its meanings. There are very few sexual excesses in Climax and almost no nudity. This is a film about dance, music, drugs and what it means to be human.
A group of dancers are unwinding after a heavy rehearsal session – they’re a mix of races, genders and sexual identities. When first we see them they perform a seemingly impromptu extended dance number to a throbbing EBM beat, the dancers weaving in and out of each other, their performance a range of styles and influences but with a shared love of movement and expression.
It’s a heady opener and it’s clear from the breakaway conversations we witness when the troupe unwind that outside of their collective dance business they’re all very different characters. The endlessly restless camera eavesdrops randomly but also lets us explore the rehearsal space within which we’ll stay throughout the length of the film. The audience is as trapped as the characters.
Post rehearsal a party of sorts is organised, and a bowl of punch is shared among most of the dancers. Except the punch is spiked with LSD, unknown to all except the one who did the spiking. Over the course of the rest of the movie – well the second part of it anyway – the acid, combined with booze, breaks down both the inhibitions and later the essential humanity of the dancers, taking each of them to their own version of hell.
Noe’s latest film is more restrained in excess than previous work, but his reputation anticipates the troubling images we’re eventually faced with: self cutting; a woman soiling herself; a young boy’s endless screams; and at one point the whole world being viewed upside down. Looking back on the film these images are recalled in isolation rather than as a continuous narrative stream, and arguably the movie works best as a series of tableaux horreurs; it’s an exhausting ride.