Welcome to Mercy (2018) does its The Exorcist (1973) thing by way of The Last Temptation of Christ (1988). These are two great tastes that taste sort of great together, but not as great as they probably should.
Kristen Ruhlin, who wrote the screenplay, stars as Madeline, a single mother with issues. She was taken from her parents in Latvia as a child and raised in conditions that kept her from starving but didn’t address her abandonment anxiety, based on the clues about how she lives her life. (Even money that Ruhlin is a trauma survivor, because she gives Madeline all the subtle tells—the sneaking around, the acting out of panic, the obsessive looking for and taking of exits two seconds after arriving somewhere—that you wouldn’t necessarily know unless you suffer from trauma or share your personal space with someone who does.) She’s coming back to Latvia with her own daughter Willow (Sophia Massa) to deal with a familial deathbed reconciliation that nobody is ready for. When she arrives home, her mother Yelena, magnificently portrayed by Svetlana Ivannikova, gives her the phone numbers for the taxi and a hotel. But something in the house has been waiting for her. Or something in her has been waiting for the house.
This movie is an example of therapy horror, where you’re trying to get past a psychological barrier or come to terms with your family of origin, and you’re unearthing secrets and finding keys to locked doors to a Kate Bush-esque high-estrogen soundtrack; meanwhile the darkness is behind you and gaining. Normally the monster in these movies is a ghost, but in this case it’s a demonic possession, which again makes me think that Ruhlin speaks from experience. What better metaphor for internalized baggage?
It’s all beautifully photographed and acted well. Director Tommy Bertelsen runs a tight ship. But you can tell he’s unsure about the horror scenes. His answer is to crank up the volume and pummel you with the voice of Sauron when he needs to do more of the tinge in the eye that announces the presence of unclean spirits. This choice is so effective that it can’t be an accident.
Madeline does unearth secrets and find keys to locked doors. I anticipated some of them but not all of them, and it’s not every day that a movie gets one past me. I just wasn’t invested enough in her story. Or maybe I was being asked to invest in it too much, and I needed to establish some healthy boundaries.