In the 1950s, the Vatican was losing customers. It needed to modernise and promoted a number of forward-thinking young priests. Among them was Irishman Malachi Martin. After a meteoric rise through the ranks, he was granted special dispensation by Pope Paul VI to work outside the church. He was still a priest, but would be allowed to practise privately, without an official ministry. This at least was Martin’s explanation. His critics say that when he left the Jesuits he could no longer claim to be a priest. Either way, this didn’t seem to slow him down. In 1965 Malachi relocated to that hot bed of sin, New York, and began to build his flock.

Father Martin’s speciality was the murky practice of exorcism. As a charismatic and eloquent speaker he quickly gained media attention and was quite prepared to shed light on what had been, up to that point, a little known procedure. His first book Hostage To The Devil conveniently coincided with the release of the film version of William Blatty’s bestselling novel The Exorcist. The public were fascinated but Blatty was apparently furious with this priest who kept popping up on TV and radio to tell ‘the truth’ about exorcism.

Father Martin’s caseload soon increased and he needed help. He assembled a community of unordained specialists – among them a paranormal expert, a medium, an NYPD cop and a senior member of the CIA. They were united against a menace that was taking advantage of the increasing secularism and decadence of the time – the devil himself. They performed many exorcisms, until one day in 1999, Malachi Martin met his match in the form of a four-year-old girl apparently possessed by the devil. Malachi went to meet her and within a few days he was dead. Alone in his home he had fallen and badly hit his head but, before he slipped into a coma, he managed to tell a friend by phone that “Old Scratch” had pushed him. It was a claim that was as dubious and unprovable as exorcism itself.

The film raises questions about the practise of exorcism and Father Malachi Martin’s personal motivations. It is billed as the story of ‘America’s most notorious exorcist’, and it is certainly true that Malachi was a savvy operator who gained financially from his position, but there is little suggestion of skullduggery (except for one interviewee whose grudge seems based on the possibility that Father Martin seduced his wife). Of Martin’s supporters, all participants seem to genuinely believe in satanic possessions and to have the victims’ well-being at heart. It was their conviction that Father Martin became to big for the devil to ignore, and so Old Scratch used the little girl as bait, specifically to catch this turbulent priest.

Martin Stalker’s well-constructed documentary clips right along, covering the history of Catholicism, the socio-political landscape of the day, and Father Martin himself. This is narrative is interwoven with the story of that day – when Malachi went to exorcise a child – creating a palpable sense of impending dread. Unfortunately the build up never pays off: Malachi’s death meant the girl waited another four years before one of Martin’s acolytes exorcised her. Stalker does manage to create some chills with his clever linking device: a faulty television displaying static, through which snatches of archive material materialise. These include the film’s trump card – footage of real exorcisms. Unfortunately, Stalker is obliged to blur the faces of the possessed victims. The soundtrack to these clips is utterly chilling, but one is forced to question whether they are real. Particularly as an important voice is missing from the film – that of the victims. A first hand account of what it means to be possessed and then purified would have legitimised the story and confirmed that Father Martin was pretty good at fighting the dark angel, even if he wasn’t totally legit as a priest.

Hostage to the Devil – Trailer 1 – (2016) from Causeway Pictures on Vimeo.

Hostage To The Devil was released on major vod platforms in the UK & Ireland on Monday 17th October.