Studio: Vertical Entertainment
Director: Paul Hyett
Writer: Paul Hyett, Conal Palmer, Gregory Blair
Producer: Marcia Do Vales, Michael Riley
Stars: Hannah Arterton, Clare Higgins, Sarah Malin, Rosie Day, Sian Breckin, Emily Tucker, Beth Walker, Ania Marson, Michael Ironside
In 17th-century England, a young woman wrongfully accused of necromancy uncovers a demonic conspiracy at a secretive convent.
“The Convent,” which premiered at FrightFest London in 2018 under the title “Heretiks” and is not to be confused with Mike Mendez’s 2000 demonic nun romp “The Convent” starring Adrienne Barbeau, takes place in 17th-century England. Apparently Michael Ironside’s script was missing that page. Either because his single scene lasts less than three minutes or because he is too entrenched in the “pull a paycheck and bounce before lunch” stage of his cameo career, Ironside amusingly doesn’t bother inconveniencing himself with something as essential as a British accent. Staying seated and no doubt checking his watch between takes, Ironside simply chews over odd dialogue in his trademark gravel gargle as a sleepy magistrate sentencing accused witch Persephone to death for necromancy.
Refusing to be outmatched in the grim-faced gravitas department, Clare Higgins of “Hellraiser” strides sternly into court as the Reverend Mother representing a nearby convent. Higgins puts in a coolly contemptuous performance as the predictably wicked woman wrapped tightly in nun’s robes, although let’s face it. If you’ve seen one Mother Superior stereotype in a horror movie, you really have seen them all.
By a bizarre bit of blackmail, Reverend Mother succeeds in commuting Persephone’s death sentence into a penance of servitude at her priory. Reverend Mother’s convent has a whispered history among gossipy villagers as a place where something horrible happened forty years ago. Whatever it was, an evil entity now stalks its cobbled corridors, and Persephone’s psychic sensitivity makes her susceptible to haunting visions while within its walls.
The convent is the kind of location low-budget chillers dream of securing. So much so that I wouldn’t be surprised to find the script was written specifically to take advantage of the building’s availability. Mossy stone walls, wooden doors creaking on iron hinges, and dustily dark hallways do the heavy lifting of manufacturing mood. Candlelight, lightning flashes, and creeping camera movements augment inherent eeriness with the usual assortment of tried-and-true cinematic techniques. It’s neither original nor particularly exceptional, but director Paul Hyett’s “get the job done” approach adequately establishes appropriate atmosphere.
Persephone meets many women at the convent, making a notepad a worthwhile investment for keeping the names among the two factions straight. Reverend Mother’s team of knuckle-rappers consists of sisters Anna Francis, Bernadine, and Lucilla. Persephone’s fellow novices of the “look down and frown frequently” variety include Catherine, Adela, and Emeline. Would-be suitor Ellis and “Old Lady Exposition” Elizabeth round out the roster of too many people playing a 77-minute game.
The game in question is a boilerplate “what’s really going on?” mystery only Persephone can solve. “The Convent” needlessly confounds its backstory with a lot of vaguely explained claptrap. Said claptrap includes Reverend Mother conjuring a demon to intentionally test their order’s faith, an indeterminate illness afflicting sisters with blindness and bloody vomit, and several other shady motivations of suspect value. Once all of the pieces are put together, the big picture doesn’t form a fully distinct image.
For most of its breezy runtime, “The Convent” coasts on cryptic conversations and gloomy photography, allowing suggestive ambiance to make up a majority of the movie’s slight fright factor. Not long after a last breath of additional explanation pivots into the third act, “The Convent” seemingly says “to Hell with it,” abandoning attempts at a nuanced narrative in favor of a finale that suddenly goes into full bore horror mode. It’s as though producers sensed the script wasn’t getting where it wanted to go as a patient period piece anyway, so they opted to try a more commercial detour by loading up on eyeless demons, caved-in skulls, glowing eye CGI, and gory spectacle instead.
Perhaps the film had more ambitious plans at some point. End credits list a wide range of characters including Jeremiah, Constance, Agnes, Christabel, Ernis, Henry, Rowan, Benedict, Mirabelle, Godiva, Millicent, Guinevere, Alice, Joan, Audric, Agatha, and Annalette. Unless every extra who appears in the background of an establishing shot has a scripted name, I have no idea who any of these people are. Whoever they were intended to be, “The Convent” becomes content with coming across the finish line as a passable spooker of fleeting resonance mildly improved by above average execution.
As for how anyone’s memory will distinguish “The Convent” down the line from “St. Agatha” (review here), “The Devil’s Doorway” (review here), “Welcome to Mercy” (review here), “The Crucifixion” (review here), or any number of other nun-related thrillers, I have no idea. Under different circumstances, I might have said, “the one with Michael Ironside,“ except even he has probably forgotten he is in this.
Review Score: 50