“A young, clerical Indiana Jones” is how Malachi Martin is described at one point in Marty Stalker’s documentary, Hostage to the Devil. Part expose, part requiem, this feature is a fascinating if tonally peculiar examination of one of the church’s more controversial media stars.
The basic premise of the documentary focuses on whether ex-priest turned unaffiliated exorcist Martin was eventually taken down by Old Nick himself or whether he simply began to believe his own hype. To be honest, it is easy to believe either option. Copious amounts of archive footage show the sparky Irishman with snow driven hair holding forth on his dealings with the devil in a voice that drifts from Hammer Horror to Oprah-style huckster. This is a guy who went on record on television, radio and in books to describe The Exorcist as “a combination of Frankenstein and Dracula with a lot of green goo”, after all. Regardless of your own views, he appears The Exorcist made flesh.
Interviewees are presented to hold forth The Word on his worldly doings, from his former editor and agent to a wide-eyed ex-cop who did the spirit circuit with him. Seeing grown, gravelley men talk about Martin in these terms goes a long way to convince you of his affect, but herein lies one of the places in which the documentary seems to cling to its vision a little too much: amidst the praise, mention is made of his less than perfect life, but precious little detail is given that could have shed further light on his contradictory character. It is probably the case that the interviewees refused to give further detail, but the way it is presented feels like a lost opportunity. Seriously, what bawdy jokes do former priests tell at dinner parties?
The documentary excels in its contextualisation of exorcism and the various church denominations within the social context of the Second World War and beyond. It is bizarre that this succeeds as it is a relatively dry subject, but it is brought into sharp focus by the spectre of the man whom whose in robes discuss. Our mind’s eye’s version of him fuses with the robes to give an improbable, folk heroic other who dared stand up to the ordained sacred and provide a focal point for a frightened lay community in a sea of change. From there, we also move on to examinations possession itself, from its spiritual aspects and tests to determine if the devil really is ‘indoors’, to brief examinations of psychology, psychotropics and other attributions. The documentary isn’t as detailed here, but it still manages to cover its bases.
That said, baselessness, is the chief quibble with the quality. The interest lies within seeing how Martin continues to cause hushed tones in those he knew and it is very talky, but there are also strangely dramatised segments such as stating-bursting television sets that are straight out of the dodgiest ‘B’ movie. Whether these segments are meant to undercut what is otherwise an overwhelmingly reverential tone is unclear. Either way, you suspect Malachi Martin would have been amused.
Hostage to the Devil fascinates with its focus on a renegade,
dinner-party darling exorcist and the social factors that made him a star. That
said, you’re never sure if what you see was not a mystery, but merely an
apparition of lights and mirrors reflected by those with their own crosses to
bear. Or is the point that we all, secretly, want to believe?
HOSTAGE TO THE DEVIL / CERT: TBC / DIRECTOR: MARTY STALKER / SCREENPLAY: RACHEL LYSAGHT, MARTY STALKER / STARRING: JOHN ZAFFIS, ART BELL, RALPH SARCHIE, KARLA LYONS, ALI LAYONS
Expected Rating: 9/10