Thus far, Let Us Prey is the only feature film from director Brian O’Malley, and what he lacks in fecundity he makes up for in crafting one really great horror. Taking more than a few cues from John Carpenter (in the pulsing, rhythmic music and in setting almost the entire movie in a police station under attack), Let Us Prey is mad and contemplative, combining visceral violence, wry wit and religious rumination into a highly entertaining package. When it was showing at 2015’s Dundead festival it was not originally a part of my viewing slate, and my last minute decision to see it was spurred almost entirely by the presence of Liam Cunningham. As happenstance goes, this was very fortunate, as Let Us Prey turned out to be the best new movie I saw at that year’s horror-fest. The lesson here is that even the most superficial reasoning can sometimes yield rich rewards.
Set in the small fictional Scottish town of Inveree, the film chronicles the first night on the job of police constable Rachel Heggie (Pollyanna McIntosh), a straight-laced officer with a traumatic past. An ordinary night shift becomes a descent into butchery and depravity as the hidden crimes of the town begin to float to the surface. The arrival of a mysterious bearded stranger (Cunningham, credited only as Six) sparks revelation after gruesome revelation, from both the denizens of the cells below and from Heggie’s own colleagues. As the body count climbs Six, named for the cell in which he is placed, is revealed to be the Devil himself, come to collect the souls of the wicked. More than this, he has sought out Heggie as someone who might recognise not only the necessity of his role, but the bizarre righteousness.
Inveree, despite every appearance of sleepy suburban tranquility, might be the worst place in the world. It’s quite staggering to have to acknowledge that of the film’s cast, Heggie and Six excepted, Mr. Beswick (Jonathan Watson), the man who “only” beats his wife and despises the schoolchildren in his charge, is arguably the most moral person. This mantle might have gone to police officers Mundie (Hanna Stanbridge) and Warnock (Bryan Larkin) for merely being unrepentant adulterers, until it is revealed that they are rather too comfortable with murdering anyone who might present an obstacle to them. Local ned Caesar (Brian Vernal) is a more interesting case, insofar as his sins lie more in his venality and cowardice than in outright malice. He alone is capable of redemption if only he admits to running down a pedestrian, because her life might yet be saved. His lack of moral fortitude denies him this respite, and he too pays the price. The final two characters display their psychopathy in similar ways, but animated by very different motives, one from science and one from religion. Dr. Hume (Niall Greig Fulton) slaughters his entire family in the name of experimentation, in a berserk attempt to discover the secret of immortality. Police sergeant MacReady (Douglas Russell) has a starring role in the movie’s lunatic third act, as it trades relative realism for incredible excess. Fearing that his homosexuality and homicidal sadism will be revealed, he chooses to express his hypocrisy by garbing himself in barbed wire (complete with a crown of thorns) and assaulting the station armed with apocalyptic scripture and a shotgun. It may seem unlikely that the Lord of Hell would choose the personally intervene in the affairs of mortals, but if any place deserved his special care and attention, it’s Inveree.
The Devil has been portrayed countless times in cinema history. When he looks like Al Pacino, he is vociferously evil, lustful and vicious in his gross appetites. When in the guise of Liz Hurley, Lucifer is more subtle, appearing as a friend in order to tempt the hero. Six is a much more compelling creature. If he is not exactly the hero of the piece, he is at least a kind of antihero. Indeed, he makes a fairly convincing case for being the most ethical presence in the story. He does not wield the axe himself, simply standing witness as the misdeeds of the sinful consume them. This is what separates him from Mundie and Warnock; in murdering their suspects, they are lowering themselves to the same level of wrongdoing. He is certainly not unfair, as shown when he gives Caesar the chance to confess and save himself, and condemns him only because he fails this test. However opposed one is to the death penalty, the absolute certainty of their guilt makes Six’s brutal view of justice difficult to argue against. His fall from Heaven is recast as moral outrage. Instead of a prideful grab for power, it is his inability to stand idly by in the face of wickedness that causes him to be expelled from Paradise. In his own words, far from forgiveness being divine, “To forgive is to ignore, to condone.” Rather than the Father of Lies, Six is an avenging angel, a necessary evil that may nor even by truly evil.
Heggie offers an effective contrast to Six, insofar as both are essentially opposed to evildoing but her approach is more human. She is a more traditional hero, struggling to do her duty under terrible circumstances. Even after Six counsels her to abandon those who are beyond saving, and even after Mundie has personally tried to kill her, she persists in her attempt to deliver everyone from MacReady’s pyromaniacal rampage. It is only when she is unsuccessful that she embraces Six entirely. This may seem like a turn, but is in fact a culmination for her character. As a young girl, it is strongly implied that she was subjected to horrific abuse, leading to an appeal to the Devil himself to set her free, a request he duly granted. It is also insinuated that she did this because her pleas to God went unanswered, which does lend credence to Six’s view of the proper approach to good and evil. The final kiss between Heggie and Six, while very odd, is eminently logical. She can offer him a companion in his lonely work as someone who might be capable of understanding pure evil. He was the only one who listened when she needed it most.
The double entendre of the film’s title seems to perfectly encapsulate its view of ethics. Faced with genuine atrocity, prayer is an inadequate and impotent response; only retribution can truly make a difference. Whether you agree or not, the argument is clear and stark. Vigilante stories appeal to our baser nature, and Six is one of the more mature and considered examples of this idea, buoyed by a commanding performance by Cunningham. The movie never becomes po-faced in its philosophy, thanks to its well-placed gallows humour and its absurd excess. In spite of some exceedingly grim moments and a medieval approach to criminal justice, there are plenty of dark laughs amid the cruelty. This is an underappreciated film in the genre that deserved a wider release, and ought to be seen by any discerning horror hound. Few movies are quite so effective in eliciting sympathy for the devil.
Let Us Prey
Directed by Brian O’Malley
Written by Fiona Watson, David Cairns and Brian O’Malley
Starring Liam Cunningham, Pollyanna McIntosh and Douglas Russell