Possession films historically have never been in short supply, but since The Exorcism of Emily Rose in 2005 recaptured the fears and delights of global audiences for the first time since The Exorcist in 1973, they’ve been an unstoppable force on par with the zombie film.
Just go to your local Redbox or click through Amazon Prime’s Horror Channel and you’ll find yourself face to face with any number of Emily Rose knockoffs, changing the location and cast but generally retaining the same beats we expect.
Talking in scary voices? Check. Writhing in pain while tied to a bed? Check. Body contorting itself in shapes that’d make a yogi blush? Triple check. And all these benchmarks, plus nuns, twisty dream logic, and a hell of a third act reveal all should make Tommy Bertelsen’s Welcome To Mercy very much my jam.
So why wasn’t it?
Welcome To Mercy follows a young woman (Kristen Ruhlin, who also wrote the film) and her daughter as they travel to the woman’s home country of Latvia to visit her parents. Things are ominous from the start as the woman’s mother implores that they mustn’t stay in their house. She mentions a hotel a few kilometers away they can walk to. “But it’s so cold. What about my daughter?” the woman says. “Children are stronger than you think.” the mother replies.
And they sure as hell are in this movie because the children go through quite a lot. That night the mother begins showing signs of stigmata, markings of the crucifixion in your body, and violently throws her daughter. Does this have anything to do with that creepy well she dreamt she fell into? Does Al Gore love the environment?
To try and save her daughter, and herself, she’s sent off to a convent to learn the simpler ways of the nuns in hopes of identifying, and learning to control, this divine power. But of course the devil is always lurking just within the shadows, and here it could even be hiding in plain sight.
Make no bones about it, Welcome to Mercy is a slow burn. Which I appreciate, but typically slow burns have bright white-hot moments that propel you through the, well, slower moments of the narrative. Here Welcome To Mercy plays within tropes we have just seen all before. The haunting moments meant to sate us through the dialogue-heavy second act feels like running through the motions of every possession beat. From the tied bed to the super strength to religious folks yelling Hail Marys in hopes of freeing a trapped soul from the clutches of a satanic force, all I kept asking was: so what?
And then the film takes a turn that is wholly unexpected and surprising. And while I can surmise that this quote-unquote twist had its narrative built around it, it is still ingenious enough to make audiences straighten up and take notice. In a film that feels as if it’s going through the motions, this is enough to electrify the film to an intriguing ending. And honestly, a great ending like this can really turn around a tepid film. But when the journey to get there is a slog, it still dampens the powerful effect of this late reveal.
What the movie has working for it though is it’s impeccable production design and usage of sound and perspective. Gorgeously shot in Latvia, the landscape is sparse and isolated, the perfect frame for a story of possession, typically about the isolation of the human consciousness that opens itself up to the attachments of the forces of evil. While it may not be the most original of demonic narratives, with a powerful third act and haunting visuals, Welcome To Mercy is a must watch for any possession completists.