By Dana Och
The attention that Aislinn Clarke’s debut feature, The Devil's Doorway (2018), has attracted in horror circles and mainstream publications indicates a growing buzz for the Northern Irish filmmaker. Some of the buzz is no doubt in relation to being the first woman to write and direct a horror feature in Northern Ireland. Filmmaking in general and genre filmmaking in particular emerges very late in both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, and the recent move to horror production in the Republic has offered the chance to see national shifts and changes to generic formulas. Northern Ireland has been even slower to develop in terms of horror filmmaking, though Clarke expects it to offer rich contributions to the genre when it finally starts to gain momentum given its history. Her work has received funding support from Northern Ireland Screen and BFI Network, including the trio of micro-shorts Short Sharp Shocks (2015) and the remarkable Childer (2016), a 19-minute film with folk horror elements where the bright mise en scene associated with comedy becomes uncanny when used to depict how a compulsively tidy mother’s abject reaction to her son results in murder. Clarke's first feature The Devil's Doorway, a Northern Ireland Screen-funded film that combines generic elements of found footage, evil nuns vis a vis the atrocities of the Magdalene Laundries, and Satanic possession.
Growing up working class in a rural village in the Irish Republic before moving to Northern Ireland at 15, Clarke was the first of her family to attend university. Though originally intending to study Irish at the Queen’s University Belfast, she shifted to a Bachelor’s in Film Studies in a program that concentrated on history and theory rather than production and then a Master’s in Film. Throughout her BA and beyond, she privately made shorts often on 8mm, including one documentary micro-short during the decommissioning of the barracks after the Good Friday Agreement that dealt with the different kinds of interactions between the military and residents rather than the more expected and known approach to the Troubles.  The short was picked up and shown on Northern Irish television late at night for years. After working in television, making short documentaries, and producing, she then went to New York to major in screenwriting at New York Film Academy before returning for a Master’s in screenwriting from Queen’s University Belfast. Prior to shifting to film full-time as filmmaker and Lecturer at the Seamus Heaney Centre at Queen’s University Belfast, she worked in prose fiction and theater. Two of her early silent film shorts were made as site-specific theatrical performances with live musical accompaniment.
Clarke’s current move into primarily concentrating on filmmaking started when three of her microshorts (under a minute each) were funded by Northern Ireland Screen. Released together as Short Sharp Shocks, the three were filmed on 35mm within a few hours in the same house later used for Childer. Tick Tock, Wake Up, and Knock Knock each begin on a close-up of a woman sleeping in bed and awakening to horror, whether supernatural or human. While the set-up is similar in each, the scenarios play out very differently. The shorts attest to both Clarke’s familiarity with generic tropes but also her interest in exploring them in different and unexpected ways. This similarity and difference is enhanced by the microshorts' awareness of Neil Jordan and Angela Carter's The Company of Wolves (1984), which also takes a fairy tale and reinterprets it in multiple and unexpected ways within what appears to be a horror film. To adhere to genre expectations is something that she finds boring: “It comes from knowing the language of genre and then not delivering on that but giving something else” . Short Sharp Shocks start to trace out a few of the traits that Clarke identifies herself as being trademarks: a tendency toward close-ups and a setting that seems indeterminate in terms of when it takes place. Her interest in long takes and a static camera become more evident in her other films given the short nature of these. The intimacy of the close-ups already marks how she engages with empathy, though, which emerges more clearly with the following films.
Though she watched a wide variety of genres as a child, which results in a distinct cine-literacy in her work, Clarke does often talk in interviews about watching horror films with her father and how he would ask her to leave the room during romance and sex scenes while letting her stay for the visceral horror scenes. This aspect of her upbringing perhaps explains the tendency, in her films, for the camera to physically move away from scenes that we want to see, which in a horror film would be the moments of violence that constitute the promised pleasure of the genre. This sense of the physical movement away from moments of sexuality or violence that would typically be played out for visual pleasure emerges in her films in the way that, for example, the camera moves away from the child being murdered in Childer. She explains, “So, the camera walks away and we do too, but, in contrast to that, the audience don’t want to walk away, they want to see the grisly thing happen. So, when the camera moves away, they have to think about it—why is that happening?”  Similarly, in The Devil's Doorway the nuns obstruct windows in doors to block footage of the mistreatment and humiliation of the young women in the laundry.  Furthermore, in this film, when something violent is about to happen or be seen, leader frames are included to make visible the abrupt cuts and edits in its “found footage.” There is a materiality to the missing information—that is, Clarke makes it so overt that information is missing that we can actually see that it is not there.
The ability to see what is missing is especially significant given her dedication to exploring how the foundation of horror is based in the realities of experience and the real world.  This move to ask the audience to think about how history is sanitized is crucial given that the film focuses on the Magdalene Laundries. The laundries were Catholic Church run “homes” that institutionalized women against their will; the inhabitants were usually pregnant single women--regardless if they were raped (sometimes by priests!) or in consensual relationships—who then had their babies taken from them and then were forced into unpaid labor, sometimes for the rest of their lives, to atone for their sins. The Church, conveniently, got to keep all the money from these very successful profit centers, the last of which closed in 1996, only one year before a 17-year-old unmarried Clarke gave birth to her own son. The recent revelation of mass graves of babies and their mothers at multiple locations in Ireland haunts the informed spectator.
While she does not identify as strictly a horror director, given projects in the works on a migrant boat “real-time” action film and a crime series, Clarke establishes her larger attraction to darker elements and female stories, which thus far have exhibited a particular interest in the Mother’s Dilemma and its specific manifestation as the abject. Horror is an area that has historically functioned as site where women’s stories and fears can be explored, as well as a genre that she thinks is under-recognized as attractive to female audiences. The move to gender blind cast or gender flip women into men’s roles in films—such as happens so often with action cinema—is not the way to deal with the gender inequality in cinema: “I am fine with strong female characters. We need those too, but I’m not as interested in a physically and emotionally strong female character being inserted into a largely male story as I am in seeing complex three dimensional female characters acting out stories that speak to and about female experiences.” 
Clarke’s tendency to tell a familiar story in a different way is evident in Childer and The Devil’s Doorway. There is a tendency in Irish horror to complicate the definition of monster and, in particular, often asks the audience to identify with the "monster." Clarke similarly offers moments in both films where audience empathy shifts toward all characters, whether human or supernatural. Thus, the audience’s sympathy and focalization can shift from a range of characters who all have good, bad, and neutral qualities, such as a world weary priest, murderous mother, child ghosts, Satanists, and evil nuns. While each may still perform negative or evil actions, the characters give voice and presence to their own oppression in ways that dismiss the possibility of a simple binary to good and evil. Clarke’s tendency to complicate and make narrative events and character traits indistinguishable is furthermore realized by unmooring the sound and image from one another. Though this technique can aid in low-budget filmmaking, her use of it deliberately frustrates the typical generic and moralistic assumptions of the genre, while simultaneously denying a sadistic pleasure in the exploitation of women’s bodies or actions.
This unmooring occurs not only with unsynchronized images and sound from different moments but also with offscreen space. Childer, for examples, uses this technique when the camera moves down the steps while the audio plays the sounds of a child being murdered in the bathroom above. The use of 16mm to make The Devil's Doorway enhances her use of the techniques because sound and image are recorded separately, giving a technological and narrative justification for the stylistic choice to run, for example, audio of an interview with a young nun over images of women toiling in the laundries. Clarke uses this technique during many of her more horrific or uncanny moments to force the audience to reflect upon the violence in the scene. A particularly striking example is a long take close-up of a young “possessed” woman’s staring directly in the camera as nuns perform a brutal symphysiotomy. The disjunction between the sound and image forces the audience to reflect on what is happening because the visuals are missing. The effect of the long take breaking of the fourth wall intensifies because of the actress’ lack of affect or screaming as we hear the nuns taking the child. We see her shackled arms as she stares impassively at the camera, wincing only once. This disjunction between sound, image, and narrative marks the moment as shifting away from the film itself in a way that asks for witnessing and recognition of the sanctioned exploitation and crimes against the young women of Ireland and Northern Ireland.
Clarke's refusal to image some of the more commonly expected horror clichés is especially overt given her tendency toward materiality elsewhere in her images. The camera often captures the “truth” of possession or the supernatural that is invisible or ignored by the rational world. This “quiet observer” quality of the camera allows not only contemplation, but a weight of truth to emerge. As Clarke explains, “if you record something, you can watch it back and it really happened.”  This materiality extends to evidence and proof, qualities that are so crucial for a filmmaker who is interested in the real life connections of horror, especially when it comes to real0life atrocities such as mothers who murder their own children or the institutional abuses of the Catholic Church with the Magdalene Laundries. The land, structures, and objects have memory even if official history tries to hide the past. The observer quality of the camera feels like the feminine gaze of women who have so often been shut out of decisions, conversations, histories, and politics.
1. Sonia Lupher, Interview with Aislinn Clarke, September 2017 (unpublished).
2. Wixson, Heather. "Interview: Director/Co-Writer Aislinn Clarke Takes Us Through The Devil's Doorway," Daily Dead, 11 July 2018.
3. Quettier, Francis and Dora Tennant. "Aislinn Clarke," Women Cinemakers Vol. VIII, 27 October 2016, pp. 104-125.
4. This technique can be seen in this video link from IFC Midnight.
5. Tinnin, Drew. "Interview: Groundbreaking Irish Director Aislinn Clarke Talks The Devil's Doorway," Dread Central 13 July 2018.
6. The Dedman. "Deadly Beauty: Aislinn Clarke," Morbidly Beautiful, 18 February 2018.
7. Sonia Lupher, Interview with Aislinn Clarke, September 2017 (unpublished).
Dr. Dana Och is a lecturer and Director of Undergraduate Studies for Film and Media Studies at the University of Pittsburgh. She writes frequently on questions of Irish cinema, horror, and horror comedy, including publications on Neil Jordan’s Company of Wolves and Byzantium, the post-colonial zombie comedy, Twin Peaks, transnational Santa horror in Rare Exports, and the neopostmodern horror film. She co-edited the anthology Transnational Horror Across Visual Media: Fragmented Bodies (Routledge 2014).
Additional Resources on Aislinn Clarke
Bibliography of Further Reading
"Aislinn Clarke is the First Irish Woman To Write and Direct a Feature Horror Film and it Looks Terrifying." IrishCentral, 6 July 2018.
Braman, Abigail. "Interview with Aislinn Clarke: Director of The Devil's Doorway," PopHorror, 13 July 2018.
Crimmins, Deirdre. "Exclusive Interview: Director Aislinn Clarke Discusses The Devil's Doorway and Shooting in Northern Ireland." Rue Morgue, 13 July 2018.
Galgana, Michele. "Interview: Aislinn Clarke and the Evils of the Catholic Church and The Devil's Doorway," ScreenAnarchy, 10 July 2018.
"SIFFcast with Aislinn Clarke" (podcast), SIFF, 11 June 2018.
The Devil's Doorway, 2018, co-writer, director
Childer (short film), 2016, writer, director
Short Sharp Shocks (short film), 2015, writer, director
The Lighthouse Keepers (short film), 2012, co-writer, director
Brian Philip Davis (editor, Short Sharp Shocks, Childer, and The Devil's Doorway)
Darren Fee (assistant director, Childer and The Devil's Doorway)
Claire Fox (art department, Childer and The Devil's Doorway)
Ryan Kernaghan (cinematographer, Short Sharp Shocks, Childer, and The Devil's Doorway)
Yellowmoon (visual effects, Childer and The Devil's Doorway)
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.