Studio: Uncork’d Entertainment
Director: Darren Lynn Bousman
Writer: Andy Demetrio, Shaun Fletcher, Sara Sometti Michaels, Clint Sears
Producer: Sara Sometti Michaels, Seth Michaels, Tara Ansley, Srdjan Stakic
Stars: Sabrina Kern, Carolyn Hennesy, Courtney Halverson, Lindsay Seim, Hannah Fierman, Trin Miller, Seth Michaels, Shaun Fletcher
A young pregnant woman in 1957 uncovers a chilling conspiracy at a convent run by sadistic nuns.
“St. Agatha’s” first few shots feature only one line of dialogue. Having a flashback while a priest drives her to some secluded countryside spot, Mary remembers a nun in a soup kitchen promising, “we take care of women like you.” With nowhere else to go as an unwed expectant mother in 1957, Mary ambles up the walkway toward Sisters of Divinity convent, one hand holding a small suitcase and the other caressing her bulging belly.
The impatient among us can appreciate how director Darren Lynn Bousman has no tolerance for unnecessary exposition. Barely a minute has passed and the movie has already finished setting the stage with a minimum amount of visual information. Stiff-lipped sisters operating a home for wayward young women in the woods. We get it, we got it, let’s get to the good stuff.
Later, we’ll touch on how “St. Agatha” doesn’t consistently make similarly efficient use of its time. For now however, a quick introduction serves as the first of a few sly sidesteps around inconvenient conventions. Another welcome one involves how cleverly the movie injects an immunization against common criticisms concerning Catholics depicted as despicable.
Early in Mary’s orientation, Mother Superior mentions that the Vatican cut off the convent due to disagreements with her militant methods. This more or less makes Sisters of Divinity a rogue operation whose motivations aren’t rooted in the usual poisoned piety of prayer or promoting Christ. In other words, “St. Agatha” employs wicked women wearing habits, but they aren’t exactly an embodiment of the typical evil nun trope.
Don’t worry. You’ll still receive regular doses of sadistic sisters dishing out plentiful punishment, just without conscious anti-religion commentary.
Already bothered by unexplained bumps in the night, downturned faces on the other pregnant girls tell Mary something sinister haunts the house. Daily pills also have her seeing hazy visions of faceless nuns flanking Mother Superior at eerie midnight masses. Mary eventually finds out firsthand how cruel the convent can be when she is locked in a coffin to be symbolically reborn as “Agatha.”
What is Mother Superior’s endgame? Despite enduring such tortures as salting a deep wound sustained in an animal trap, the other subjugated postulants have it as bad as Mary. One squirmy scene finds a young woman forced to eat her own vomit. Unflattering chatter compels another girl to cut out her own tongue. Editing cunningly cuts around mutilating moments so the horror isn’t always head-on, but the suggestiveness is certainly not for the squeamish.
If anything, the movie overdoes atmosphere more than visceral violence. “Amityville Horror” la-la-la’s set a mild mood within Mark Sayfritz’s score only to burst into fully operatic ah-ah-ah’s by the third act. Darren Lynn Bousman hungers so heartily for theatrical touches that he can’t stop himself from indulging in the imagery of impossibly fogged forests and Argento-esque lighting schemes. It’s admirably cheeky how Bousman plays some story cards so subtly, yet cinematic flourishes hit the table hard enough to break the tone of terror in half.
The wood never completely cracks however. How could it when rich cinematography and art direction make a meal out of a modest budget to cook high-calorie content for the eyes? “St. Agatha” begs forgiveness for narrative sins through the redemptive penance of sharp production design as well as impassioned performances.
Secondary characters compose 90% of the roster, although every actress capably carries her weight. “St. Agatha” exemplifies the adage of “no small roles,” which can be expanded to encompass underwritten parts too. Courtney Halverson, Hannah Fierman, and Trin Miller have less to do than Sabrina Kern as Mary, though they are no less talented at telling unspoken stories exclusively through expressive emoting.
In the interests of not calling out everyone by name, I’ll settle on singling Carolyn Hennesy as a standout. Mother Superior is such a clichéd character that she instantly conjures certain impressions in a viewer’s mind. Hennesy hits expected notes, yet also taps into an elegant smugness that tunes the stereotype to a frighteningly fun frequency. Imagine Robin Wright in “House of Cards” meets a “Law and Order” lawyer who loves turning the screws more than any reasonable person should. Henessy’s performance is just juicy enough to be as entertainingly irritating as intended without becoming camp, which teases a risky line Bousman keeps everyone from crossing.
The “what’s really going on?” mystery mostly works to keep intrigue at a satisfyingly steady level. If there’s any one thing taking air out of the finale’s tires, it’s the fact that the reveal isn’t as shocking as plotting seems to promise. Nightmares and masked nuns hint at something supernatural or occult-ish. But the truth behind Mother Superior’s motivation turns out to be tethered to an “oh, that’s all?” explanation. Being grounded may make scares more realistic for some while merely making the conclusion “meh” for others.
For something credited to four different writers, the script hits a strangely high number of repeat beats, e.g. one too many unsuccessful escape attempts ending in more pain for Mary. In instances like these, the movie could use more of Bousman’s Mother Superior-like sternness. The director excels at building backstory through interspersed flashbacks to keep “St. Agatha” from flatlining through chronological storytelling. But a trim to the 104-minute runtime would do wonders for reducing redundancy.
Those grievances aired, “St. Agatha” still turns in a strong showing of gross-outs, gruesomeness, and other assorted scenes of savagery. Sharpening its edge with a committed cast and a few fresh slants on familiar setups, “St. Agatha” at least accelerates past counterparts like “Welcome to Mercy” (review here) as an enjoyably engaging corrupt convent thriller.
Review Score: 65