INTERVIEW: Director Aislinn Clarke on Historical Found-Footage Horror ‘The Devil’s Doorway’

The Devil’s Doorway will be playing at Frightfest London 2018.

The screening will take place on Saturday 25th August at 4.20pm at Leicester Square Cineworld.

Tickets are available here!

Having screened for the first time on the eve of the Republic of Ireland’s historic vote to change their restrictive abortion laws, Aislinn Clarke‘s historical horror The Devil’s Doorway feels very timely.

Shot using authentic, era-appropriate equipment (as well as digitally downgraded modern kit) on location in one of Ireland’s so-called ‘Magdalene Laundries’, The Devil’s Doorway transports its viewers back in time to a very dark period in the country’s history.

We caught up with Aislinn to talk about the project.

Tom: Those outside of Ireland will be unfamiliar with the concept of Magdalene Laundries. Could you explain what these places were?

Aislinn: The Magdalene Laundries were church-run for-profit institutions, in which ‘fallen women’ were placed and forced to work, mostly cleaning linen, but, elsewhere, making boards for Hasbro games, for example. The inmates weren’t paid for the work and the money went to the church. Women could be sent here for any reason: all it required was for a man to sign them over. The majority of the inmates were put in these places for getting pregnant out of wedlock, but it could as easily have been to get them out of the way, because they were considered ‘difficult’ or ‘too pretty.’ Many would be there for life.

There were Magdalene Laundries all over the world – certainly in England, the US, Canada, etc. – but it was the specific character of theocratic Ireland from the 1920s which made them particularly unpleasant here. The church and the state were interlinked, which gave these places an especial power, as they were allowed to function by politicians and were fed into by the professional class: doctors, teachers, police, lawyers, all supported them and similar institutions, like borstals and mental institutions. It was this side-lining and exploitation of the vulnerable that allowed the Irish state to function for a long time.

The last one only closed in 1996.

Tom: To what extent was the terrible nature of these places understood by the general public in Ireland at the time?

Aislinn: It was no secret that these were awful places, but people didn’t necessarily know the extent of the treatment that went on in them. And you must remember that the population was mostly devout Catholics – they had been brought up to expect such punishment and accept the church’s authority.

My dad was a bread-man and he delivered to the local laundry: he described the place as being a white-hot Hell, just steam, heat, and sheets, women of all ages with red raw faces. Still, he didn’t know the half of it. And, at the same time, the nuns would make chicken sandwiches for him to take home to me every Saturday morning because they knew I’d be up early watching cartoons. Like any abusive relationship, it was complex; they give and they take away, the abuse is ignored, accepted, excused.

Of course, it was much later that the specifics of mass graves, adoption for profit, and the like came out.

Tom: Do you think that horror and the supernatural are useful tools for exploring and interrogating real-life social injustices?

Aislinn: One of my main reference points, when I started working on the film, was Del Toro’s The Devil’s Backbone. That is a perfect example of how horror, the supernatural, the strange, the fantastical – whatever you want to call it – can be employed to explore a nation’s dark history. Ghosts and monsters are excellent metaphors for the events that haunt us and the inhuman actions we’re capable of, so it would be a mistake not to use them, not to give those things a shape, an agency, and a name. Horror has always worked that way, though, back to the Gothic novel: these things are an expression of our darkest feelings, whether that’s the impulse of cruelty or the inertia of powerlessness.

It is easy for horror to be exploitative though: nuns have certainly been the focus of much cinematic exploitation over the years. I think it is important that, like with humour, horror should punch up: the horrorific thing is how we act and the choices we make. Thus, when the producers came to me with the idea of a possession in a Magdalene Laundry, I knew I had to take it on. It could easily have been exploitative of the true horrors in those places, but I wanted to make sure that it wasn’t the inmate girls that were horrific, the dead children weren’t horrific, even the individual priests and nuns who facilitated this abuse aren’t really horrific – it’s the system that existed, limiting their choices and making them near powerless to act otherwise, that was the real horror.

Tom: The film had its world premiere during the abortion referendum. Do you think that films like this are expressions of changing public opinion or do they help drive that change?

Aislinn: It was incredible to have the world premiere on the day of the Repeal Referendum, half way around world. When the film started, we had no idea how things would go at home – everything seemed so close. Then, when the film ended, we could say with confidence that the Amendment that denied abortion treatments would be lifted. Although, I always need to point out that abortion is still unavailable in Northern Ireland, where I’ve lived since I was fifteen, and there is still a lot of work to do.

As to the affect of socially conscious films on public opinion, that can only be a small part of a much larger momentum. In order for any change to occur, we need to provide a language of experience, we to help articulate and describe the problems, and we need to open up paths to empathise with others. Films are a great way to do this and I hope this film goes some way to doing that. However, that is only a tributary feeding into the mainstream of thought. A million different factors add up to change.

Tom: I understand that members of your family had indirect contact with the laundries themselves. How did their anecdotes colour your approach to depicting the laundries?

Aislinn: Those sorts of anecdotes are inescapable here. When she was 13, my mother’s best friend was taken away to a laundry by a priest, just abducted off the street into the priest’s car. They never saw each other again. The woman who ran the village shop was made crippled by a symphysiotomy – the church-endorsed birthing procedure whereby the pelvis is broken and the perineum split open; they preferred this operation to the Caesarian section, because the C-section limits a woman to giving birth three times. In addition to that, I have interviewed people who were in these places and others who were adopted from these institutions, never knowing their mothers, never hearing from them, learning nothing about them. That’s how the history of these places is best understood: from people’s experience.

Tom: I understand that you had to convince the producers to allow you to use analogue and era-appropriate equipment such as 16mm cameras. Why was this so important to the story that you wanted to tell?

Aislinn: When the producers came to me, they wanted to make a contemporary found-footage film shot on Go-Pros set in a disused laundry. But I felt that, if we wanted to get at the real horror of those places, we had to set it in their heyday, the 1960s. Found-footage can be a hard sell and it can be hard to get people to suspend their disbelief, but it was important to get the right feel, the right visual quality, the right audio quality to fully flesh out the world and the characters. I wanted it to look like documentary or archive footage, to give it that haunted quality, the sense that these were events that we can never return to and can never make right.

Tom: Can you describe any other lengths that you had to go to in order to ensure period authenticity?

Aislinn: I’d worked on film before: the DOP, Ryan Kernaghan, and I had shot a short on 35mm and I’d worked with 8mm a lot in my student days. In those terms, we were very comfortable, but, in order to cover the exact quality that we were looking for, we studied the cinema verite documentaries of the Maysles Brothers and Soviet Mental Health films. There’s a particular way of shooting that sets those films in a very specific time: they are free and amateurish, but they have an eye for the beautiful and the cinematic, they are not workaday reportage and I wanted to get that.

Beyond that, we were lucky to have a great art team that were able to source everything, making sure that it was period appropriate. Anything they couldn’t find, they made to period appropriate designs.

Tom: As well as technical limitations, the film shoot was confined to only 16 days. Why was the shoot so constricted and what effect do you think that this had on the film?

Aislinn: This was a budget limitation: that was the time we had the crew, the cast, the locations. We couldn’t stretch any further than that. It just meant that we had to work fast, which I think gives a real immediacy to the performances. I did rehearse with the cast in advance of the shoot so that we weren’t casting around too much ‘looking for the moment’ on the set. We were shooting on film a lot of the time as well, which simply means that you can’t indulge in take after take: you have to get it as quickly as possible and move on, as you’ve a limited amount of stock. It was a good thing that we wrapped in those fifteen days, because the day after we left the shooting location – a former Somme Hospital in Belfast – the roof caved in.

We’d like to say a massive thank you to Aislinn Clarke for speaking with us! You can keep up to date with her on Twitter. Check out the trailer for The Devil’s Doorway below.

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