It's insane to type this, but Aislinn Clarke is Northern Ireland's very first female horror director. Her debut feature, The Devil’s Doorway, is being released by IFC Midnight. The trailer is currently terrifying the Internet with its spook-tacular scares. I was able to see the film at Cinepocalypse in Chicago, and fortunate to have interviewed Clarke after the fact.
I learned about a host of horrific things done and the evil that good men do — in the name of greed in Northern Ireland/Ireland. Here, the dastardly deeds refer to the infamous "Magdalane Laundries," where girls and women were forced into slave labor. If reading Clarke's answers to my questions doesn't give you a shiver, you might not be human.
The official synopsis:
What unholy terrors lurk behind the walls of a secretive Irish convent? Northern Ireland, 1960: Father Thomas Riley (Lalor Roddy) and Father John Thornton (Ciaran Flynn) are dispatched by the Vatican to investigate reports of a miracle — a statue of the Virgin Mary weeping blood — at a remote Catholic asylum for “immoral” women. Armed with 16mm film cameras to record their findings, the priests instead discover a depraved horror show of sadistic nuns, satanism, and demonic possession. Supernatural forces are at work here — but they are not the doing of God. Inspired by the infamous true histories of Magdalene Laundries — in which “fallen women” were held captive by the Irish Catholic Church — this found footage occult shocker is a chilling encounter with unspeakable evil.
The Devil’s Doorway was based off real events; can you tell us more about what actually happened and how this horrific, hidden history influenced the script?
The Magdalene Laundries were church-run workshops for girls and women, where the inmates were detained indefinitely and mostly for life. The girls there were forced to launder clothes, sheets, etc. and all of the money went to the church. They were essentially a slave labor force. There were laundries all across the Catholic world, but because of the close partnership between the church and government in Ireland during the Twentieth Century, it was especially awful here — it was part of the system that kept the country running. Women and girls could be taken from their homes and families simply on the say-so of a man: because the man wanted them out of the way to access property, to hush up an affair, anything. The majority of the girls, though, were pregnant out of wedlock, and the church would hide them away and the babies put up for adoption. This was the case in theory, but recent revelations have shown multiple instances of babies being sold or, in former Magdalene sites, left to die, perhaps even murdered. It was recent cases in Tuam, Co. Galway and Newry, Co. Down that provided the basis for the event in the film.
Has the Catholic Church (to your knowledge) gone on record in admitting its role in these “Magdalene Laundries?”
They never hid it. What went on in the laundries was never overt — it was known vaguely by the public — but there was no doubt that they were awful, vicious places. My father was a breadman who delivered to one of the local laundries and he used to tell us how hot and bright and terrible it was — his vision of Hell. He hardly knew what was going on. It was the apparatus of church and state in Ireland that allowed it to go on, even in the North — doctors, teachers, police were all complicit in it, for fear of losing power, status, or simply taking the brunt of the government and church’s power themselves. Since the worst of the revelations, though, there has been no formal or meaningful apology. The women whose lives were lost or wasted in these places are still seeking some form of justice, but it hasn't been forthcoming from the church and it hasn't been forthcoming from the state.
Were there any real occurrences that didn’t make it into the script?
There are hundreds of true-life stories from the laundries that never made it into the film overtly. One of the most visceral memories my mother has is of her best friend being taking away, in a car, by a priest, to one of these places — they never saw each other again. She was literally dragged away screaming. The nuns used to give the girls new names to take away their old identities. Some of the cruel procedural elements didn't make it into the film. And, at the gross and absurd end, Hasbro, the multinational games company, had Buckaroo and Mousetrap assembled by girls in laundries during the 80s, with the girls seeing none of the money. I can ask the audience to suspend their disbelief around possession and the Devil, but not exploitation like that.
The 8th Amendment of the Irish Constitution was just repealed, meaning that the abortion ban there has ended. I’m curious to know if these politics had any influence on The Devil’s Doorway.
It was a very special moment to have the film’s world premiere on May 25th. I went into the screening with no idea of how the vote was going to go and came out to the relief that the exit polls were conclusive that the amendment would be repealed. There is no doubt that the anger and frustration expressed in the repeal campaign was also funneled into the film. The 8th amendment and the laundries are certainly linked — the mistreatment of women in Ireland is historic in the sense that it has existed through all of Irish history. I had my son when I was 17, a year after the last laundry was closed; in a slightly different time line, I could have been one of those girls. And while I was always going to keep my son, who has grown into an extremely intelligent and kind young man, the climate for an unwed mother then — in the church, in hospitals, in schools — was still very hostile.
However, while the repeal is a great move forward, we have to keep focus on the fact that there is still no abortion access in Northern Ireland. That part of the island — where I moved when I was 15 — is not covered by the constitution; it's part of the U.K., but is allowed to maintain its own laws on abortion, gay marriage, and other social issues. It will take a lot of pressure to align it socially with the rest of Ireland the UK.
What made you decide to create The Devil’s Doorway using found footage techniques?
The producers came to me with the idea for a found footage film set in an abandoned laundry, in a contemporary setting. I was able to convince them that, if they wanted to make a found footage film, we could do something new by setting it in the ‘60s heyday of the laundries and restricting ourselves as much as possible, to the equipment available then. Producers never want to hear that you intend to shoot on film, but I was able to talk them into it. It allowed us to make something more like a Maysles Brothers documentary than Paranormal Activity or Grave Encounters. Those documentaries were an important reference for me. Also, because I wanted to make a proper Gothic horror film, full of dark corners, hidden secrets, and phantasmagorical turns, found footage was a sort of way to replicate the 19th Century epistolary sensational novels, like "Maria Monk: The Hidden Secrets of a Nun's Life."
Your Mother Superior is fantastic; illuminate us on how you found Helena Bereen and the rest of the cast. How long did casting take, and was it tricky to cast those roles?
Helena is fantastic. She had just come to us from having played the personification of Belfast in Mark Cousins’ brilliant fantasy documentary I Am Belfast and my husband had worked with her in the theatre. Northern Ireland is small like that, so, while we came to most of the cast through the usual audition process, everybody was pretty familiar with everybody before we even began. Lalor, who plays the lead Father Thomas, is the only one who didn't come through the process. We had been looking to cast a little younger, but, somehow, the script had fallen into his hands and he just got in touch and asked to read for it, having seen the script somewhere. I invited him to my office, he auditioned there and then and he was Father Thomas. Lalor had lived through all the social upheaval in Ireland through the sixties and seventies and was full of the righteous anger that the project needed. Like Helena, he was just perfect off the bat.
You’re the very first female horror director in Northern Ireland. In 2018, does that feel odd? What’s the industry like in Northern Ireland?
Yes and no. I'd rather I wasn't. I would love to see what horror films would have come out of NI, by women or men, in the ‘60s,’ 70s, ‘80s; those were fascinating and terrifying times, but the film industry here was stultified and stymied by the Troubles and economic effects of that. However, in the past ten years or so, with Game of Thrones and other big international projects, the industry has transformed and we have so much opportunity and access to world-class, professional crews that there is a lot of great work coming out. And it will continue. If I am the first female horror director to make a feature here, I certainly won't be the last.
I understand that the U.K. premiere is at FrightFest. If there have been test screenings, I’d love to hear about those audience reactions.
Yes, the U.K. premiere is on August 25th at FrightFest. The European premiere is at the Galway Film Fleadh on July 11th — it's important to have it there, so close to the mass grave in Tuam. There have been no test screenings; we simply didn’t have the budget for that. The festival screenings that we've had in the US have all been really positive and the ones that I had the luck to have attend had great atmosphere and the questions and interest shown by audiences, about the film, about the subject matter, about Ireland, about me, has all been enthusiastic and intelligent and engaged. It's really gratifying.
What was the most challenging part(s) of production, and what did you learn?
The whole experience was different. I'd made shorts before and I've worked in theatre a lot, but making a feature is different. We had about 16 days to shoot, on a tiny budget, very little lead-in or development time — we just had to do it. The sort of all-encompassing focus that helps you work through so many consecutive hours, with little-to-no sleep, and leading a team of a dozens of people is an intense feeling. But I learned that this is where I thrive. In fact, I learned that the set is my favorite place to be and I can't wait to get on to the next one.
Is there anything else you’d like us to know about The Devil’s Doorway?
A lot of people ask me if, working on a film like this, there was any sense of demonic forces at work, Satanic presences. Perhaps we'd upset something or set something free. I know some people intimated that we might have a curse on our hands. I’m not a big believer in that sort of thing. But, in the end, I think someone — I don't know who — was watching over us. The day after filming, the roof completely caved in on the room we'd been using as the church. Who knows if we hadn't kept to schedule, then we might been cursed after all.