Welcome to Mercy

A trend in horror this year involves family. When you look at some of the big horror films released this year, the horror of families, particularly when it comes to mothers and their kids, emerges as a trend. Look at the parental nightmares of Hereditary and Pyewacket, where the horror of motherhood is examined. The loss of parents and its effect on children, evidenced in Tigers Are Not Afraid. The inability of parents unable to protect their children from the world, as in The Witch in the Window and Summer of ‘84. Obviously, there’s something on the mind’s of filmmakers right now. Into this comes Welcome to Mercy and it kind of crosses all of these boundaries by focusing on the sins of the parents and how those sins are passed down to the children.

Madaline (Kristen Ruhlin) is a single mother who has returned to her native country of Latvia with her young daughter Willow (Sophia Massa) because her father is bed-ridden and dying. It’s quickly established that Madaline is estranged from her parents, as her mother looks very displeased when she shows up at the house. In fact, she appears to not want anything to do with Madaline or her kid as the old woman even tells her to walk a few kilometers to the nearest hotel, in the dead of winter night.

Eventually, she relents. But there’s something off about Madaline’s parents. Her father is behind lock and key, bed-ridden. Her mother, after showing them to a room, mumbles a curse at the father and sleeps in a chair outside his room, keys in lap. The next morning, a creepy looking priest named Father Josef (Juris Strenga) shows up to give her father his last rites. But something happens to Madaline, she gets yanked across the room, pulling her daughter with her. And then the tops of her feet split open in an unsettling display of the stigmata.

When Madaline awakens, she learns that in her frenzied state she attacked her daughter, who is bruised and nursing a black eye. Willow won’t come near Madaline and while Father Josef thinks the stigmata is a blessing, it seems to Madaline to be more of a curse. Josef manages to convince Madaline to go get some help from a local convent, in order to solve the issue and maybe get back her daughter’s trust. But, of course the convent isn’t what it first seems and maybe this blessing truly is something more horrific.

Welcome to Mercy was filmed in Latvia because of a joint venture with their Latvian partners Forma Pro, and it actually works to the film’s favor. The locations are bleak and winter-tossed. It adds to the gothic nature of the film. The script was written by the star Kristen Ruhlin and it offers an interesting take on demonic possession. The thing that really stood out to me was how the story focused completely on the victim.

When you look at movies like The Exorcism of Emily Rose, The Exorcist or…virtually any other possession story, you see stories about the priests. The themes of those films are more about a priest’s struggle with faith, more than they are about the person being possessed. So Ruhlin’s story is immediately more engaging and unique in that regard. The way the story twists and ultimately ends up revealing what’s really going on is interesting and original. Unfortunately, the pacing is a little slow. Yes, it’s a slow burn horror, but there seems to be a lack of actual conflict throughout most of it, on first glance. At the convent, Madeline doesn’t seem to really be getting much worse, outside of a few little sequences.

The most interesting part of the story deals with Madaline and her new convent friend August (Lily Newmark). August ingratiates herself into Madaline’s life and helps her get the lay of the land. There’s a bell tower, for instance, that August warns Madaline from entering. And she warns Madaline to not trust Mother Superior (Eileen Davies). Their friendship is interesting and an instrumental part of the narrative. I wish it had been more fully explored, though.

Ultimately, the most interesting aspect of the movie is info-dumped towards the end. The third act is full of exposition, detailing Madaline’s childhood and hinting at the drama that would eventually unfold. I really enjoyed parts of Welcome to Mercy and loved its focus on Madaline instead of using her possession as a narrative device for a male character’s growth. Thematically rich, but a little messy, I think fans of possession films will find something unique and new in this story.

Welcome to Mercy is in select theatres and is available on VOD. 

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