A contempo take on “The Exorcist” in which church and family turn out to be far more hellish than Beelzebub, “Dorothy Mills” offers few frights but plenty of hair-raising psychology in its portrayal of a teenage girl possessed by multiple personalities. Inspired by a U.S. case but set on a gloomy Irish island that would drive anyone insane, writer-director Agnes Merlet’s psycho-suspenser features strong perfs from Carice van Houten (“Black Book”) and newcomer Jenn Murray, but loses the thriller strain early on. Pic should see subdued B.O. in France, with loonier prospects in ancillary and horror fests.
Opening scene, of a churchgoing couple finding their child strangled by a psychotic teen babysitter, Dorothy (Murray), is by far the most chilling moment. Thereon, the narrative settles into a more classic psychodrama that has suspense taking a backseat to therapeutic inner-demon searching.
Following the murder, action fast-forwards to a psychiatric hospital where therapist Jane Morton (van Houten), who was sent to investigate Dorothy’s case, begins to tell her version of the facts. Pic then flashes backs to her arrival on the ever-foggy island where, after surviving a nocturnal car crash, she finally makes contact with her subject.
Dorothy’s various personalities — including a Linda Blair-like baddie with an adequately filthy mouth — present themselves in disturbing succession. Meanwhile, the island’s God-fearing, drably dressed inhabitants, led by a brainwashing pastor, Ross (Gary Lewis), try to prevent Jane from prying into their dirty small-town business.
Rest of pic focuses on Jane’s alliance with a friendly local sheriff (David Wilmot) and her continued efforts to penetrate Dorothy’s troubled mind. Via a series of twisted therapy sessions, Jane begins to grasp the origins of the teen’s madness, which are much more real-life than biblical.
Writer-director Merlet’s previous movies — “The Son of the Shark” (1993) and “Artemisia” (1997) — were fresh takes on teen-realist pics and artsy costumers. In her first English-language film, she tries to blend a psychological thriller with a gothic scarefest.
The sinister atmosphere of the island — all mud, fog, dead sheep and drunken fishermen — is extremely well rendered, and much more disturbing than the “Exorcist”-style possession rants. However, constant flashing back and forth, especially in the second half, dilutes whatever bloodcurdling moments the scenario tries to conjure up.
Newcomer Murray is creepy enough as Dorothy when she sits alone in silent agony, less so when she cusses and scratches the other cast members. Van Houten and Wilmot give intense perfs.
Tech package is adequately fright-friendly. Rain-soaked landscapes, filmed in dark green and gray tones by Giorgios Arvanitis, keep an eerie mood throughout; Nathaniel Mechaly’s score is slightly over-the-top considering the limited number of actual frights. Pic features scant blood or gore.