In films featuring demonic possession, the literal demon and the madness it brings can be used to represent some kind of emotional torment. Writer-director Eduardo Sanchez warps the possession-horror drama in Lovely Molly by leading with the emotional torment, and leaving the audience to wonder if there’s a literal demon at work of if the protagonist has finally succumbed to her childhood trauma. Just as madness consumes the main character’s tortured soul, Sanchez and actress Gretchen Lodge consume us with a terror that is far more effective than tired satanic symbols and flashy supernatural phenomenon.
The film grabs you from the start by opening with a scene of Molly (Lodge) recording herself holding a knife to her throat. She desperately wants to kill herself, and struggles to pull the blade before breaking down and saying, “He won’t let me…” We then go back to a much saner time in Molly’s life, and watch her marriage to Tim (Johnny Lewis). The newlyweds decide to move into Molly’s childhood home even though the house brings back countless painful memories for Molly, but she’s determined to overcome her trauma by starting a new family. However, Tim’s job as a trucker keeps him on the road, and she’s left alone to face her inner demons, and quite possibly, a real demon. Molly becomes increasingly paranoid, begins to hear noises, and her mind starts to unravel with violent and disturbing consequences.
For almost the entire runtime, Lovely Molly does an incredible job of remaining ambiguous on whether or not Molls is possessed by a demon. There are a few hints that one might be lurking, but in one way, it’s almost irrelevant if there’s a literal demon or not. Madness is madness, and it’s always terrifying and tragic. Molly tries using a camcorder to record herself and prove to others that the demon is real, but no one else (including the audience) can see the demon on tape. The camcorder “found footage” is used sparingly and provides a detached perspective that’s no less horrifying than Sanchez’ gothic and creepy look at Molly’s world. When the camcorder captures her possession, we can only hear the audio but her cries are agonizing. For all intents and purposes, Molly is being raped and even if it’s psychosomatic rape, it’s just as brutal and perhaps more so since defense isn’t difficult—it’s physically impossible.
Watching Molly’s slow destruction wouldn’t work without Lodge’s incredible performance. The actress is a revelation and she perfectly plays every emotional beat. The character swings from defiant to afraid to hopeful to manipulative and all of these emotions are wrapped in a madness she’s struggling to resist. Lodge is fearless in showing Molly’s growing detachment from her loved ones, and moving down the violent path that lies ahead. Half of the film’s power relies on her, and Lodge completely understands that she has to play the character as apparently schizophrenic to other characters, and potentially possessed by a literal demon when she’s alone.
Sanchez almost always knows how to keep the audience guessing, but his priority is making sure that whatever the “answer” may be, the movie is terrifying. Aside from a few cheap jump scares near the beginning, Lovely Molly is treated like a high-class horror film with deep shadows and stark contrasts. The sound design is even creepier as Sanchez employs a constant high-pitched whine that would drive anyone mad if they listened to it long enough. The only points where the movie ceases to scare is when it has to force a plot point or a twist. Lovely Molly has a perfect closing image, but then Sanchez tacks on an epilogue that breaks the carefully-constructed ambiguity of Molly’s illness.
These few missteps aside, Eduardo Sanchez has taken the tired exorcism genre and cast aside the salvation-bearing male authority figures. In their place he and Lodge have created a complex, tragic character who has been haunted all her life, and then collides with the inescapable horror of her traumatic past. In a disturbing twist, Lovely Molly makes us want to take comfort in the demon because at least an exorcism is a “cure”. Instead, Lodge’s breathtaking performance and Sanchez’ powerful direction send us spiraling into a young woman’s insanity, and there’s nothing any priest or ritual can do to save her or us.
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