The Priests / Geomeun sajedeul (dir. Jang Jae-hyun, 2015) – A priest and a deacon investigate a young girl’s affliction that they believe may be caused by a demonic presence.
When Young-sin (Park So-Dam) starts to act out after awakening from a coma, Father Kim (Kim Yoon-seok) becomes convinced that she is possessed by a demonic spirit. He prepares for an exorcism with the help of the Catholic Church that assigns Deacon Choi (Kang Dong-won) to assist him on the job.
The inexperienced seminarian isn’t quite as well-equipped as Father Kim, nor he is as certain. He casts doubt on Young-sin’s predicament, suspecting grounded terrors instead of ghostly horrors. This ambiguity keeps the plot engaging, though it isn’t long before he sees the truth and falls back on his faith.
Thereafter, The Priests unfolds as what any horror fan would expect. Running on standard fare, the film goes through the familiar exorcism rituals – of possession and deception, before the priests’ final attempt at expulsion.
This dance between the Devil and Man is done exceptionally well, if ticking all the boxes in the genre’s tropes. Part of this is due to the credibility of the portrayals, especially with Park So-Dam as Young-sin. We feel for her character with each glimpse of who she once was, making her slip from reality a truly uneasy watch.
Rather than merely fulfilling archetypes, the priests get fleshed out backstories too. Father Kim feels guilt over Young-sin’s prolonged suffering, having known her before her affliction. Choi goes through his own emotive journey in working through his difficult past, while learning to accept his new reality and vocation.
Apart from a light touch of humour from the interactions between the priests, the dark atmosphere bears echoes of other horror staples like The Exorcist and The Devil Inside. The South Korean setting however lends the typically Western subgenre a unique perspective.
Traditional ancestral rites occur between familiar Catholic rituals, each relying on their own beliefs and means when it comes to the spiritual world. All of which means a fairly interesting take on a potentially trite arc.
Only a tonal shift in its third act may divide audiences when the film takes a hard steer from atmospheric horror to full-on action. The jarring switch-up in both mood and pace may catch some off-guard. Even so, one thing’s for certain. There hasn’t been an exorcism scene quite as memorable as this singular finale in years.
A standout in on-screen exorcisms, The Priests reinterprets the story’s tropes with welcome depth.
The Priests is now on Netflix.