Ireland isn’t exactly known for its horror output. From Shrooms, to Wake Wood, to The Canal, we tend to have a somewhat inconsistent relationship with the genre. Early reports suggest The Hallow, set in an enchanted forest of sorts, is about to change all that but only time will tell (it’s set for a UK release this summer, with no Stateside date yet announced). An Irish Exorcism, the directorial debut from cinematographer Eric Courtney, is neither the worst the Emerald Isle has to offer nor the best; it isn’t exactly life-changing but it’s not terrible either.
The film opens with a title card informing us that the footage we are about to see was compiled by a member of the Catholic Church (always a bad sign), before switching swiftly to the first of many to-camera narrations from our naively enthusiastic protagonist. Aislinn Ní Uallacháin is Lorraine, a student shooting a documentary on exorcisms who, after meeting with a local priest (played by Irish comedian Paddy C. Courtney), comes across a woman who believes her daughter is possessed. Thinking she’s hit the jackpot, Lorraine and her skeptical buddy Cathal (the likeable Dillon White) visit the family home to get footage of the troubled child. The usual madness ensues.
Practically every film dealing with the subject matter of exorcism will owe some debt to the one and only Exorcist, William Friedkin’s 1970s masterpiece that has yet to be equalled, or bettered–it’s unavoidable. Likewise, found footage movies are so ubiquitous that they will also be subject to comparison to the best and worst the format has to offer. An Irish Exorcism suffers from its ties to both, particularly considering its similarities to modern pretenders to the throne such as the The Last Exorcism and The Devil Inside, both of which tried to do too much at once and ultimately managed not to do much of anything as a result.With the college project angle, An Irish Exorcism manages to successfully avoid many of the annoying plot contrivances usually associated with found footage, such as lengthy sections of boring exposition (early on, Lorraine scolds Cathal for asking what they’re doing, informing him she’s already told him several times). Unfortunately, it also means a lot of narration, which, when Lorraine is doing things like opening doors or flicking through note-pads, which gets very irritating, very quickly. And, when something spooky is about to go down, it’s almost criminal. The documentary angle was handled brilliantly in Ti West’s The Sacrament and, even though An Irish Exorcism never quite reaches those heights, at least the quality of the footage is better than the usual gritty, shaky-cam rubbish captured by drunken teens.
The mockumentary angle also allows for some interesting set-pieces, such as the discovery of a desecrated statue in a graveyard, but it results in some messy guerrilla audio such as during an interview in a large, echo-y church. Thankfully, this is followed up by a lengthy discussion in a quiet garden, so it can be forgiven to some extent. This particular interview, during which tortured mother Maura (Elaine Hearty) breaks down completely, admitting she’s at the end of her tether and doesn’t know quite know what to do anymore, forms the centrepiece of the film. It’s one of the strongest moments because it’s unique and inventive, while it also establishes the atmosphere better than a million night-time shots of nothing happening, with a jump scare at the end, ever could.
Crucially, the child isn’t revealed to us for almost an hour, making the impact of her presumed disorder greater. As Lisa, who may be abused or reacting to her father’s death or schizophrenic or all three at once, newcomer Anna Davis does a good job of being creepy and freaking out at everyone, even if the moment she’s introduced is unintentionally hilarious (it involves a pillow). She’s kept off-screen for most of her final act of destruction which, thanks to some nifty camera glitches and a lot of shrieking from the rest of the cast, manages to come off scarier than her time spent on-screen. Likewise, a recording of her making strange, otherworldly noises works better than her standing around with her hair covering her face which, annoyingly, is another trick telegraphed in from a different movie that doesn’t quite work here.
An Irish Exorcism is mostly formulaic and predictable, but there are some interesting moments that mark it as more well-intentioned than many of its contemporaries, particularly the performances, which are mostly understated and effective. Although most of Lorraine’s to-camera spots are infuriating (and audiences outside of Ireland are sure to struggle with her accent), there are some interesting facts to be gleaned about exorcism throughout and, in spite of the wildly unlikely premise, the final product does feel like found footage. The juxtaposition of an old-school priest versus a young, hip do-gooder type is also handled well, particularly when Courtney’s Fr. Quinn is glimpsed kneeling in the driveway, crying into his hands.
The location is inspired, even if it’s filmed with absolutely no spatial awareness whatsoever. A sequence in the wine cellar is easily the scariest and most effective of the entire film, even if Lorraine sort of ruins the suspense by constantly talking. As a protagonist, she’s not easy to empathise with, as intruding on Maura’s suffering isn’t exactly the most ethical thing to do. One almost wishes Cathal would hop out from behind the camera more often to be the voice of reason (he consistently insists Lisa needs medical help). As an audience insert, he works quite well, along with poor Maura who can’t seem to do anything right by anyone. But Lorraine is gutsy and passionate, and her motivations are clear, even if they’re a bit off.
As a horror movie, An Irish Exorcism isn’t pushing any boundaries and it’s unlikely to inspire any copycats. Rigidly formulaic and derivative, it squanders most of its relatively short running time reminding us of other, more effective exorcism-themed fare. However, a great location, committed cast and a handful of genuinely inventive, scary sequences–the final shot packs a considerable punch–save it from being completely useless (even though it’s unlikely you’ll recall much of it later). It works best when it’s trying to do its own thing and, although it doesn’t suggest that Irish horror is about to make much of an impact any time soon, it isn’t nearly as bad as Shrooms nor is it an obvious cash grab like The Devil Inside. And for this it should be applauded. After all, God loves a trier.
WICKED RATING: (4 / 10)
Director(s): Eric Courtney
Writer(s): Martin Robinson
Stars: Aislinn Ní Uallacháin, Paddy C. Courtney, Dillon White, Elaine Hearty
Studio/ Production Co: Frame It Films
Length: 85 minutes
Sub-Genre: Possession, found footage