There are certainly no shortage of religious themed horror films. Long before Father Merrin and Karras attempted to exorcise young Regan, Hollywood’s fascination with the darker supernatural side of piety was already fully established as far back as the silent film era. In Tommy Bertelsen’s WELCOME TO MERCY, religion looms large as a tormented woman seeks answers from the church.
The frozen, desolate Latvian countryside is the backdrop for the awkward homecoming of Madaline and her young daughter Willow. Arriving unannounced on a blustery night, the pair are reluctantly welcomed into the cabin Madaline called home many years ago. Though the details are mysterious, it is apparent from the get go that her departure from the home was tumultuous, and she spent the remainder of her years in the care of someone other than her parents. Much to the chagrin of her frosty mother, a letter from her dying father is what brought Madaline back to her childhood home.
Soon after their arrival, however, Madaline is afflicted with terrible visions, sleepwalking, and even a stigmata-like episode which forces her to leave Willow in her mother’s care while she seeks council and treatment at a nearby convent.
While the film has a cold and isolated quality that lends itself to the overall creepy vibe, the film is also peppered with a bunch of spine-tingling sequences that are genuinely frightening. Bertelsen’s beautiful imagery of the frigid countryside provides a wonderful context for the scary tale while also utilizing ominous POV style shots that give a sense of a supernatural force intervening. Though the film has a slow burn feel, the various jarring and horrific interludes strike a nice balance with the more contemplative tones.
Writer/lead actress Kristen Ruhlin is terrific as the tormented protagonist. She aptly captures the angst of a mother torn between protecting her daughter and getting to the bottom of her mysterious woes. Additionally, when her character is in the throes of her affliction, Ruhlin's portrayal of her suffering is utterly convincing.
The supporting cast is relatively lack luster except for one exception in Lily Newmark’s performance as one of Madaline’s convert cohorts. Her rebellious take adds just the right amount of playfulness amid all the doom and gloom of the heavy drama, but she also exhibits a dangerous edge when the time is right.
Though WELCOME TO MERCY is effective overall with its spooks and scares, unfortunately there seems to be a few holes and unanswered questions throughout the purposely puzzling story. Like any good story, the film keeps the audience guessing right up until the end, however in this case some of the mysteries remain just as elusive in the end as in the beginning.
Despite these few head scratching moments, the mesmerizing and chilling WELCOME TO MERCY is definitely still worthy of a watch when the IFC Midnight release opens in the U.S. theatrically, on VOD, and via digital platforms on 11/2, so check it out! Thanks for reading.