The Millennium Centre towers over us with aged beauty, pillars stretching upwards to meet carved stone and the blue sky above. It’s almost as impressive and staggering an entrance as the doorway to Dracula’s isolated domain in a Hammer film. But this building is not sequestered to some faraway precipice, it’s instead comfortably nestled within the establishments on Winnipeg’s Main Street. But the locals and tourists strolling down the sidewalk would likely never guess that a satanic ritual of human sacrifice is about to take place in the basement. Looks can be deceiving, you know.
Fearing no sharp-toothed denizens of the dead within this structure, we ascend the short stairway and enter the bronze doors of the 104-year-old construction, taking one more moment to gaze up at the gorgeous gray façade. Ambling past a marble World War One memorial wall in the entryway, we walk into the Millennium Centre’s main room, a cavernous hall largely illuminated by the natural light seeping through the domed ceiling. In the past, this immense interior was a bank, but for days it has served as the base of operations for Steven R. Monroe’s The Exorcism of Molly Hartley, the sequel to 2008’s The Haunting of Molly Hartley from Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment.
The building’s beauty contrasts the film’s gritty plot, in which a now grown-up Molly Hartley becomes slowly possessed by the devil and is eventually confined to a psychiatric hospital. But right now we’re far from the rubber-padded rooms of an asylum. White pillars line the walls, resting on top of cream-colored marble slabs that act as giant baseboards for the circular core of the Centre. Reminding us that this building used to be a bank are the black and green marble counters forming a giant U on the far side of the room, capped off on the corners by columns crowned with tiny bronze bison heads.
A black iron-gated elevator sits inoperable in the corner, so we take the angled stairs up to the second floor. These are the same stairs descended by a mob of people desperately seeking safety in the wake of an atomic bomb drop in Xavier Gens’ The Divide, a psychological horror film partly shot here in 2010. Thankfully we are not filled with the primal fear of incineration as we ascend the stairs, instead brimming with anticipation for the demonic delights to come.
At the second floor landing we get acquainted with our base of operations: a large rectangular room with windows looking outside on the left and open arched windows giving a nice view of the main hall on the right. On the far wall is an adjoining room with a fireplace, though it’s been many years since any flames licked the walls behind its shuttered door.
Rather than gather around the fireplace to share spooky tale like an indoor version of Are You Afraid of the Dark?, we head back down to the main hall where a live horror story is being prepared. Taking the place of bank tellers behind the shiny U-shaped slabs are about a dozen actors: most of them wearing black suits and dresses. They look like innocent, everyday people, but their realistic appearance masks sinister, satanic intentions. Helping hide their horror is costume designer Patricia J. Henderson.
“To me, there’s a fine line between character and caricature,” says Henderson. “Dog Day Afternoon is a perfect example of how I like to do my things. It was the ’70s, but it was real. It’s important for me to make sure everything looks real every day. This is a movie about real people that you don’t know have been taken over by the devil. It’s important to have these characters be like us.”
Bulbs outlining two makeup station mirrors set up against a nearby wall cast a warm glow on the group. They have received plenty of use on set, as Makeup Department Head Doug Morrow prefers the power of practical effects.
“We’re not making a gore movie, it’s really a character-driven movie,” Morrow says. “So the real big things are the possession makeups on Sarah Lind, who plays Molly. She has four different stages of looking possessed, which go from paint and contact lenses to stages of appliances that make her look more cadaverous and more possessed. So we have a different stage of contact lenses, different stage of dentures, and we also have a series of prosthetics to make her look more scary.”
Lind will soon be filming in the basement below the shiny tile floor at our feet. Along with the dark clothed Satanists, we descend the building’s stairs to get a better view of the occult activity about to take place. Michael Biehn does not wait for us at the bottom, ready to slam a steel door as he did in The Divide. No, instead we encounter an eerie hallway lit by construction lights that lure us into the basement’s main chamber.
Just because this room is brighter than the hall doesn’t mean it’s without a touch of horror and a bit of the bizarre. Yellow caution tape is strung tightly between concrete pillars in front of the monitor station. Beyond the tape lies a crack in the floor, sinking two giant concrete slabs for nearly one-third the length of the room. The crack makes a “V” out of the sunken slabs, making it appear as if a doorway to Hell has opened up. It’s a perfect atmospheric touch for the demonic scene being filmed in the adjoining room.
An open doorway lies beyond the rupture in the floor and glows with an orange hue. To avoid stepping into the camera’s shot, we head towards another entrance, walking past a cluster of stacked church pews, then past the monitor station and into a tiny back hallway, with equipment on the right and a stark concrete wall on the left. The cramped quarters are reminiscent of the labyrinths Jigsaw would have his victims navigate in the Saw films. But thankfully none of us are wearing a bear trap on our heads, allowing us to rest our backs against the cool back wall of the rectangular chamber where the cast and crew are filming.
Moving forward on tracks, a camera records the assembled group at the other end of the room. The interior boasts the grimy boiler room-like features that would make Freddy Krueger feel right at home, while the steady camerawork and cult-centric story look to lend the film a retro vibe.
“It [The Exorcism of Molly Hartley] has a fairly classical sort of style,” says Jonathan Cliff, Director of Photography. “There are a lot of wide, composed shots with the camera. It’s not a frenetic handheld free-for-all vibe. It’s not so much what I think of as the modern horror movie—it hearkens back to ’70s classic horror films.”
Agreeing with Cliff is director Steven R. Monroe, who discusses the film’s eclectic style. “This one goes back to the classic era while keeping it modern—always in constant tribute to The Exorcist (being the greatest—in my mind—film about exorcism ever made or probably the best horror film ever made), but still making it feel very current, very modern. It’s not so much falling in between, but trying to make the best of both worlds out of it.”
Standing before the dark-clothed members we saw upstairs is a hooded figure bearing all the signs of an ominous cult leader, particularly the blade gripped in one hand. Strapped-down on a gurney before him is Molly Hartley herself, all grown up and played by Sarah Lind in a version of the character that’s quite different than the one we saw in high school circa 2008.
“The character’s changed from the first movie mainly in that she’s gotten older and that she’s now possessed by the devil,” says Lind. “Throughout most of the movie, I’m actually playing Satan, which I think every actor should get a chance to do in their career [laughs]. You’re playing Satan, so you take any impulse—no matter how perverse or disgusting or inappropriate—and you just let it go un-reigned. It’s magnificent.”
Hartley finds herself the guest of honor at a perilous party, but before the fiendish festivities can begin, two late additions to the guest book arrive: Dr. Laurie Hawthorne (Gina Holden) and Father John Barrow (Devon Sawa).
“She [Dr. Hawthorne] is the psychologist at the hospital where Molly ends up,” says Holden. “I essentially want to be there for her and figure out what’s going on—and I don’t know what it is, but it’s just my job to sit and talk with her and give her those therapy sessions and figure out what’s going on.
"Professionally, she’s thinking one way—'I can figure this out, it’s nothing paranormal, it’s nothing freaky.' But inside she can tell that something is definitely off. She’s curious and really does care about Molly and wants to help her.”
“Father Barrow is a priest that was studying to perform exorcisms,” Sawa says. “He was performing one that went terribly wrong and he started to question his own faith. He landed in a psych ward instead of a prison in a compromise with the courts. Of course he ends up in the wrong psych ward and things go sour.”
Things do indeed go sour when a cult, Hartley, and friends collide in the shadowy confines of the Millennium Centre’s basement. By the time our feet hit the stairs on our way back up to the surface, we’ve seen the cast and crew skillfully film a showdown between good versus evil. For now, this fight for a young woman’s life and soul will be kept within the concrete walls below Winnipeg, but starting today, Twentieth Century Fox will unleash it in living rooms across the country.