New film asks: Was Malachi Martin an exorcist or an exhibitionist?

The documentary "Hostage to the Devil" lets viewers make their own judgments about whether the controversial former priest and best-selling author was a sinner or saint, an exorcist or showman, a prophet or sophist.

A new film has as its subject Malachi Martin, an Irishman who was, by turns, Jesuit priest, professor at a Pontifical Institute in Rome, layman, bestselling author, talk show guest, celebrity. From the 1970s, he also claimed to be part of an underground network of unofficial ‘exorcists’. As charismatic as he would prove beguiling, as intellectual as he appeared pious, Martin was, above all, controversial, and remains so to this day, as this film testifies.  

Hostage to the Devil ( is a 90-minute documentary film by Marty Stalker. It has been produced with the co-operation of the Irish Film Board. This is fitting given that the story it tells starts in the far south of that country. Malachi Martin was born in County Kerry in 1921. Having graduated in philosophy from the University of Dublin, he joined the Society of Jesus and was ordained a priest in 1954. His further studies took him to Louvain in Belgium, to the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and to Oxford University.  Thereafter, he was sent to Rome as Professor at the Pontifical Biblical Institute where he taught Aramaic, Hebrew and Sacred Scripture. His future career looked bright, especially when he was made Private Secretary to Cardinal Bea. It proved not to be so. The Second Vatican Council was called in 1962. Some would maintain that alongside the good intentions of those who convened it, other forces gathered too, intent on distorting the reception of the outcome of the Council. 

Certainly this is what Martin was to emphasize in what he said and wrote during the decades that followed. He became an outspoken critic of the Second Vatican Council in general and, in particular, of the direction taken by the Jesuit Order following the Council. In 1965, he was laicized. Martin maintains that this process was personally authorized by Pope Paul VI, but that it only involved his dispensation from two—poverty and obedience—of the three vows he had taken, with the vow of chastity voluntarily retained for the rest of his life. One of the priests featured in the film finds such a claim baffling: why the dispensation from some but not all of the vows in question? From this period on, however, there were many things in the life of Malachi Martin that proved baffling. 

Hostage to the Devil is a well-made documentary. It could have easily been otherwise, given the material presented and explored. It could, for example, have concentrated upon the more sensational aspects of the life of its subject. Instead, we have a parade of witnesses who thought him a spiritual genius, a holy man, a warrior in the battle against the powers of darkness. There is also a prominent critic: Robert Blair Kaiser. He was also an ex-Jesuit and, in some ways, just as controversial, but, unlike Martin, he was one who fully supported the direction the Jesuit order appeared to take from the 1960s onwards. He knew Martin before, during, and then after the Council. He dismisses Martin as a charlatan. Whether Martin was a sinner or saint, an exorcist or showman, a prophet or sophist, as the film runs the audience is left to make up its mind. 

Martin is best known for his 1975 book, Hostage to the Devil: The Possession and Exorcism of Five Living Americans.  The book was not without controversy. It was published in the wake of the 1973 blockbuster film, which was setting box office records throughout 1974. William Peter Blatty, the author of the 1971 novel The Exorcist and screenwriter of the film, lambasted Martin’s work as a cheap ‘rip off’ that took advantage of the media wave Blatty’s work had started. Nevertheless, Martin’s book became an instant bestseller, and propelled him into the media spotlight. Then a resident in New York, Martin appeared on television and radio and became the media’s expert on the subject of exorcism. The difference between Martin and Blatty was a simple one. Whereas Blatty wrote on the subject as an interested outsider, Martin claimed to write from the inside as a practicing exorcist. 

As the film rightly points out, however, an exorcist must, in all cases, be a priest appointed by the local bishop.  The laity are not permitted to perform exorcisms. Herein lies the central problem with Martin and his claims. If he was no longer a priest, what was he doing performing exorcisms? His supporters claim that Martin ‘never stopped being a priest’. His detractors side with Blatty in seeing this whole dimension of Martin’s life as an attention-grabbing stunt designed to sell books. 

Hostage to the Devil makes good use of film footage of Martin on national television and his speaking at more informal gatherings—and of the audiotapes that Martin made from the 1970s onwards. What we appear to see and hear in these recordings is a man of towering intelligence who combines a way with words with a seemingly infectious personal charm. In this documentary its makers have created a film where the puzzle of Malachi Martin is left for the audience to ponder. Ultimately, however, this is not a film about faith. It is, instead, a look at the life of a curious figure from the late twentieth century—one as much showman as churchman, and one who continues to divide opinion and who will, no doubt, continue to do so for years to come. 

[Hostage to the Devil is rated 12 for infrequent strong language, references to exorcisms and demonic possession.]

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About K. V. Turley 61 Articles
K.V. Turley writes from London.

3 Trackbacks / Pingbacks

  1. Hostage to the Devil—The Possession and Exorcism of Five Comtemporary Americans by Father Malachi Martin, 1976, Preface & Links… | The Sanguine Woods
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