Horror films make exorcisms look ugly but exciting. We see dynamic battles against powerful forces of evil, desperate attempts to save vulnerable young women and girls from grotesque monsters. if the alternative is ultimate destruction, any extreme seems justified. In real life, of course, the expression of these ancient traditions can have devastating effects.
A lot has been written, over the centuries, on the especial vulnerability of certain types of people to demonic possession, but those groups correspond suspiciously neatly to those with the least social power, and the evidence suggests that a worrying number of exorcisms are carried out without the consent of the person supposedly being helped.
Nick Kozakis’ latest work is an exorcism film of an altogether different kind. Reportedly based on real events – there are a couple of cases from Australia in the Nineties which bear distinct similarities – it focuses on a young couple who seek help after one of them begins to experience frightening hallucinations and behave oddly. She (Lara, played by Geogria Eyers) has been institutionalised in the past. These symptoms, along with her hypersensitivity to certain types of sound, point pretty clearly towards schizophrenia as the problem, but her husband Ron (Dan Ewing) is convinced there’s something supernatural going on.
The Catholic Church has an awkward role to play in all this. In recent years it has significantly increased the number of exorcisms it performs, but it’s not clear how much this is out of a real belief in (increasingly commonplace) demonic attacks or if it’s simply aiming to ensure that where they are done, they’re done responsibly. Its exorcists are trained and licensed, have some training in identifying mental illness and operate within safety parameters.
They require psychiatrists to confirm that a person can’t be treated effectively with medication before they will step in. Unfortunately, there are also unlicensed operators around. When Lara’s psychiatrist refuses to certify her as untreatable, Ron finds charismatic stranger Daniel (Tim Pocock), who has no qualifications but gives him exactly the sales pitch he wants to hear.
Lara’s feelings don’t really come into this. There’s a numbness, a distance to her whose origins will eventually be revealed with, again, a heavy dose of real world horror, but there are also evident issues in the relationship. Whilst Ron clearly dotes on her and wants to protect her, his controlling behaviour is, at best, enabling her retreat from the world, and, at worst, overriding her express wishes. It’s clear that her psychiatrist (Eliza Matengu) has spotted this and is concerned about her safety, but unlikely that she realises just how extreme the situation is about to become.
Alongside the extreme and dramatic aspects of this story are all sorts of insidious little details which show the harm done by this kind of thinking in day to day life. When a plumber talks to Lara about the supposed evils of vaccinations and fluorine in tap water, it would be amusing but for the look on her face.
When Ron talks her out of taking her medication, and when we hear about a cancer patient who was talked out of taking his, it’s a lot more disturbing. When Lara suffers from delusions, it’s religious language she uses because that’s what she’s been surrounded with, and so we see, at times, the sort of behaviours we might expect in a traditional horror film, but that’s a reminder of the need to look a little deeper.
Godless isn’t entirely successful. The histrionic nature of the rituals it explores leads to lapses into melodrama, and the acting is pretty rough in places. Bouts of narcissistic rage and self-aggrandisement aside, we never really get to know what drives Daniel. What we do get is a reminder of how vulnerable people like Lara are to falling through gaps in the system, especially when those close to them become a danger rather than advocating on their behalf.
We also see how justifying actions with religion helps to keep the full force of the law at bay. There are deeper criticisms here than those levelled at the film’s main antagonists. Kozakis also makes the wise choice to hold back on depictions of Lara in good health, so that when we finally see what she has the potential to be, the horror hits all the harder.