Irish film-maker Aislinn Clarke on her new horror The Devil's Doorway
Irish film-maker Aislinn Clarke chats to David Roy about her new horror movie The Devil's Doorway, which gets its northern premiere at QFT Belfast next week. The Dundalk-born writer/director and former QFT usher explains why she's looking forward to screening her debut feature during the cinema's ongoing 50th birthday celebrations
THE Devil's Doorway is a piece of movie history: Dundalk-born Aislinn Clarke's stylishly executed feature debut is the first horror film to be written and directed by an Irishwoman.
Entirely shot in Northern Ireland and starring Lalor Roddy, Ciaran Flynn, Helena Bereen and Lauren Coe, The Devil's Doorway is set in 1960. It centres on a pair of priests dispatched to a Magdelene laundry in order to authenticate a series of potentially miraculous occurrences.
Jaded Fr Thomas (Roddy) and his more devout cine camera-wielding young colleague Fr John (Flynn) are instructed by the Vatican to film every aspect of their investigations at this grim 'home for fallen women', granting the movie license to reinvent the found footage genre (The Blair Witch Project, Paranormal Activity etc) in a documentary style.
Indeed, having dissuaded producer Martin Brennan from pursuing his original idea of a contemporary piece set in an abandoned laundry, Clarke and her director of photography Ryan Kernaghan (Bad Day For The Cut) shot on 16mm and have presented the film in a 4:3 aspect ratio for added period-correct authenticity.
As a result, The Devil's Doorway might well be the first ever horror movie to explicitly reference the work of seminal US documentarians the Maysles brothers.
"I was looking at the way they shot things – their film Salesman, which follows door to door salesmen in the early 60s, was definitely a general aesthetic reference for us," confirms Clarke, who studied film and screenwriting at Queen's University Belfast and the New York Film Academy and currently lectures in creative writing at QUB's Seamus Heaney Centre.
"My character is not making a horror film, he's making a documentary."
Once the increasingly terrified Fr John starts capturing all sorts of disturbing images and noises during the dead of night, the priestly pair are led down into the musty bowels of the laundry where the creepy Mother Superior (Bereen) and her habit-clad minions are harbouring a demonic secret.
Made with support from Northern Ireland Screen’s New Talent Focus scheme, while The Devil's Doorway does have its fair share of standard-issue horror jump scares and deftly executed Exorcist-esque practical stunt-work, the story's all too topical non-supernatural elements – sold via Lalor Roddy's affecting performance as a disillusioned priest disgusted by the Catholic Church's treatment of women in these state-endorsed workhouses – are just as powerful.
Rather than relying on cheap thrills, Clarke was keen that the all too painfully real human horrors of the laundry itself should provide a genuinely disturbing anchor point for her highly atmospheric debut feature.
"I wouldn't have been able to live with myself if we'd done it any other way," the writer/director tells me when we meet at QFT Belfast to discuss the film. "I'd actually done a lot of research on Magdalene laundries about 10 years ago for a TV documentary that never actually happened, so it was a topic that was really close to my heart and that I cared a lot about.
"I felt that it was really important that we make something that didn't feel exploitative."
Having grown up watching horror films with her late father ("he would censor any sexual stuff but heads spinning around were OK", she notes), Clarke was already well versed in the tropes and language of this powerful cinematic genre before tackling her debut feature.
"I like all kinds of film – but horror is probably my favourite genre," she says. "From being totally immersed in that world, I know that the 'real' things are what keep you up at night, not the spooks. A loud sound that makes you jump is a physical, visceral reaction – that's not the same thing as being horrified by something, where you wake up in the middle of the night because you can't stop thinking about it.
"[With The Devil's Doorway] I'm using the more straightforward horror elements as a jumping off point to get into the real horror. I think that's how you make a really powerful film that will stick with people long afterwards – and that was my priority."
According to Clarke, who premiered her movie debut at the Seattle International Film Festival in May, audience reactions to date suggest she has been successful.
"Literally nobody had seen it yet," Clarke reveals of The Devil's Doorway's first public exhibition. "We hadn't even had a cast and crew screening – the first time they will see it is here at QFT.
"Seattle was actually sold out, which was amazing. I was in the car on the way to the screening and I could see this queue all the way down the street and around the corner.
"I was thinking 'Rod Stewart must be playing somewhere tonight', but then the driver said, 'You see that queue – they're all going to see your film'.
"It went really well and all the audiences have been really responsive so far."
In the wake of its well-received Irish premiere at the Galway Film Fleadh in July, it's fitting that The Devil's Doorway will make its northern debut at QFT Belfast next week, where Clarke – whose family moved to Forkhill in Co Armagh when she was 15 – worked as an usher during her student years.
"I always loved working here," she enthuses. "I loved being an usher and going into the cinema with my torch. I really liked that element of it – it was kind of like being a ferryman for the public into the magic world of cinema.
"I'm very romantic about these things. I remember seeing the Hopper painting of the usher standing at the back of the screen [New York Movie], where she's kind of in her own world. I always kind of thought of myself as that – a person on the periphery between the magic world and the real world."
:: The Devil's Doorway with Aislinn Clarke Q&A, Friday October 19, QFT Belfast. Tickets via Queensfilmtheatre.com
QFT50 – 6 OF THE BEST
Queen's Film Theatre is currently celebrating its 50th anniversary with a programme of special screenings and events. Here, we pick a a few choice offerings for your consideration
:: Bloodyminded (October 14)
The first ever interactive live feature film to be broadcast online and at cinemas around Britain and the north in this one-off screening.
:: Viva Maria! (October 16)
Fifty years to the day after it became the first film to be shown at QFT, Louis Malle’s Viva Maria! returns to the big screen followed by a David Holmes DJ set.
:: Mark Kermode (October 20 & 21)
Top film critic Mark Kermode's Cinemagic Film Night returns to QFT for a screening of Cork director Nora Twomey's Oscar-nominated 2017 animated feature The Breadwinner (October 20), before the good doctor waxes lyrical about his many musical misadventures as detailed in new memoir How Does it Feel? (October 21). Read our interview in next week's Scene.
:: Derry Girls (October 23)
Expect anarchic comedy fun as the cast and crew of Lisa McGee's hit Channel 4 sitcom Derry Girls take over the QFT for screenings and discussion of their favourite episodes.
:: Point Break (October 28)
Kathryn Bigelow's 1991 'extreme dudes' crime thriller starring Keanu Reeves and Patrick Swayze returns for a rare big screen outing. Film writer and programmer Sophie Brown will be on hand to explain why it took her seven years to untangle the film's cinema licensing so that we might enjoy this vintage 35mm print.
:: Widows (October 31)
The new heist film from Oscar-winning director Steve McQueen closes the QFT50 celebrations with a Gala screening – special guests tbc.
:: Full QFT50 programme available at Queensfilmtheatre.com/qft50