Movie Review: Hostage to the Devil

Hostage to the Devil poster

@dinsmorality reviews...

Director: Marty Stalker
Writers: Rachel Lysaght, Marty Stalker
Stars: John Zaffis, Ralph Sarchie, Art Bell


In anything one does pertaining to art and entertainment, one must first ask this basic question: Who is my audience? That’s a more than appropriate question to ask yourself before deciding to sit down and watch Hostage to the Devil, a documentary about the controversial life of former Irish Jesuit Priest, Malachi Martin. For those unfamiliar with Martin, who died in 1999, a quick stroll to Wikipedia may help, but he is best known for leaving his sacred oath as a priest to become a quite extraordinary American citizen who partook in exorcisms and wrote extensively about the Devil and his earthly presence. This documentary attempts to explain not only Martin’s work but, through a series of interviews with people who knew and loved the late priest, convince an otherwise skeptical and secular public that his work proves the existence of the Devil.

So what do you believe? Are you a believer in the devil, or do such questions inhibit any rational explanation for why evil exists? Wherever one lies in this “debate,” I don’t see this film changing any minds. For one, the execution is off. The film begins with a horror-like set up of someone screaming in a dark room. Oh, so this is a horror film. But then it cuts to a person narrating, and she is sitting in front of the camera, trying to provide context for all that screaming. Oh, so this is a docudrama. But then immediately after the title of the film, a new narrator cuts in explaining the state of the Catholic Church in the 1950s-60s. Oh, so this is actually a documentary. Then why overstep drama and production value to set such an ominous tone?

The answer is the subject matter. Through a series of convoluted interviews spliced with taped lectures from Martin himself, we learn about the various exorcisms he led, evidenced by blurred-out victims screaming into a shaky camera, supposed real footage of their affliction (I’m not buying it). Furthermore, the lectures are lengthy, insufferable claims about the Devil and Sin, meant to scare audiences the way any exorcist-themed Hollywood film claims to be “Based on a True Story.” The claims in these lectures are supported by the interviewees, who can attest to either witnessing evil in their own trades (many are Demonologists) or by assisting in one of Martin’s many exorcisms.

Near the end of the film, one subject states that Martin’s story may not change minds, but we must do everything we can to get out the message; it is considered the duty of Martin’s followers and ultimately (obviously) of this film. Again, it’s what you believe.

But one saving grace (pun intended) I took away from this film is a reminder that an evolving Vatican in the mid-20th Century had to adapt to the new mores borne out of the 60s, leaving behind what writer Thomas Frank called the conservative middle class proscriptions of 1950s correctness. If one were to label the 1960s as a bastion of liberal sex and lifestyle (not too Kosher with a religious life), then one can see a pattern laid out beautifully in a timeline that lands in the 1970s. What did we get? Not only a spate of great horror films about the Devil, including the The Exorcist, we got the seminal work of Malachi Martin, including his book in which this film is named for. The Devil, sin, damnation for an unholy life; all unsurprising themes that dominated religious discourse in Western life after the hangover of the 1960s. It seems in some circles, such discourse, like the devil himself, is alive and well in 2016.

Eric Dinsmore

Twitter: @Dinsmorality

Images: IMDb