DIR: Aislinn Clarke • WRI: Aislinn Clarke, Martin Brennan, Michael B. Jackson • PRO: Martin Brennan, Katy Jackson, Michael B. Jackson • DOP: Ryan Kernaghan • ED: Brian Philip Davis • DES: John Leslie • CAST: Lalor Roddy, Ciaran Flynn, Helena Bereen, Lauren Coe
In 1960, seasoned, jaded priest, Fr. Thomas Riley (Roddy), and his understudy, Fr. John Thornton (Flynn), are sent by the church to investigate a supposed weeping statue in a Magdalene laundry. They are to document their findings on film. The Mother Superior (Bereen) is dismissive of the claims, suggesting the whole thing is a hoax. However the more the priests investigate matters, the more they begin to realise the extent of both the horrors being inflicted on to the women in the laundry by the sisters, and also horrors that may not be of this world.
This found-footage film follows in the recent tradition of horror films that act as metaphorical representations of serious social and psychological issues such as Get Out, which satirized liberal white America’s insidious racism through horror-comedy, and Hereditary, which examined the theme of familial grief in an occult setting. Here, in her feature debut, Aislinn Clarke tackles Ireland and the Catholic Church’s dark history with the Magdalene laundries. The presentation of this being a documentary film from 1960 adds a further layer of clever genre deconstruction. The decision to shoot on 16mm film rather than replicating the era digitally creates an evocative and eerie aesthetic, as well as adding a further layer of authenticity to the picture.
Clarke utilises the found footage element often creatively and extremely effectively. The film features a haunting birthing sequence that focuses solely on a characters’ face as she stares into camera. Clarke has cited Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc in how troubling and dramatically effective sustained focus on the human face can be. The film’s frequently stark approach to horror, allowing certain scenes to play out without cuts, often also calls to mind the uncompromising style of filmmakers such as Michael Haneke more than it does other found-footage horrors. This style contrasts nicely with scenes in which Ryan Kernaghan’s camerawork is more frenetic, such as in the frantic last act. It is consistently a film, however, that plays on the power of the audience’s imagination, making them think they have seen more than they have. Clarke finds interesting and diverse ways of suggesting rather than showing and the film is all the more powerful because of that.
The form of the film also allows her to develop her characters in interesting ways, with direct-camera monologues providing effective and concise insights into their background. Clarke is aided by a superb cast. Roddy exudes wearied decency as Fr. Thomas struggles to comprehend both the supernatural goings-on in the laundry and, even more so, the shocking cruelty on display from the nuns in the laundry. It marks another superb turn from Roddy this year following his outstanding work in Michael Inside. The Mother Superior, at the forefront of the cruelty, is brilliantly essayed by Bereen. It’s a chilling and wholly believable performance. An early scene in which she viciously slaps a girl who makes flirtatious remarks to the priests is as shocking and stomach-churning as any jump scare. The Mother Superior’s continued arrogance in the face of being found out by the priests is a wonderfully drawn microcosm of the evils of the Catholic Church’s abuses and cover-ups. Flynn and Coe are also utterly convincing in their respective roles.
Smart in both form and content, this is an innovative, effective and necessary Irish horror film. It marks Clarke out as a distinctive talent to watch.