St Agatha Movie Review
Written by Ren Zelen
Released by Signature Entertainment / Frightfest Presents
Directed by Darren Lynn Bousman
Written by Andy Demetrio, Shaun Fletcher, Sara Sometti Michaels and Clint Sears
2018, 90 minutes, Not Yet Rated
Frightfest European Premiere on 24th August 2018
Sabrina Kern as Mary
Carolyn Hennesy as Mother Superior
Courtney Halverson as Catherine
Seth Michaels as Father Andrew
Trin Miller as Paula
As a convent educated girl myself, I seem to review a fair number of horror movies offering the spectacle of nasty nuns or malevolent religious institutions. Darren Lynn Bousman’s ‘nunsploitation’ flick St. Agatha is yet another. Now that Witches are no longer horror’s ‘flavour of the month’, the ‘monsters du jour’ appear to be my old pals of schooldays – the nuns.
When I see a film set in a convent with an almost entirely female cast but with only a single woman involved in the writing and production, I’m sure I’ll find little attempt at authenticity, and indeed, this is the case with St. Agatha, but after all, this is a horror flick, and its entire raison d'être is to try and creep us out (as if the real thing couldn’t do that enough).
Set in 1957, St. Agatha follows the sorry tale of Mary (Sabrina Kern), a young woman who is pregnant but unwed – a shameful predicament frowned upon during that conservative era. She has run away from her abusive father (Jayson Warner Smith), and boyfriend Jimmy (Justin Miles), her con-man partner, is now a criminal on the run, while their entire stash of money has been taken in revenge by an angry victim of one of their scams. Mary is also running from the guilt she feels for her part in a terrible family accident.
While taking a meal at a local soup kitchen, she is noticed by a nun, who offers her refuge in a nearby convent. This would seem to be a safe place to be supported through her pregnancy and have her baby discreetly. Later, she can get back in touch with Jimmy and they might have the chance of a fresh start. It seems an ideal solution.
With nowhere left to run, she accepts the place at the convent and is conveyed there by a priest. However, when stoney-faced, monosyllabic nuns usher her into a building right out of a gothic nightmare, we get the first intimations that this may not be the safe haven the desperate young woman was hoping for.
We soon surmise that these are not the kind of ‘nuns’ that simply hand out detention to girls whose skirts do not meet the required length. Mary soon discovers that the strict rules employed while they do ‘the Lord’s work’ mean that the destitute, pregnant girls in Mother Superior’s care live in constant fear. Even the most minor infraction of a rule is met with disproportionate and sadistic punishment.
When we see the comparatively youngish Mother Superior (Carolyn Hennesy) de-habited, sporting full make-up and swanning around in a silk dressing gown every evening, our suspicions might be aroused that these nuns may, in fact, not be what they seem.
Mary’s past is revealed in flashbacks and unveils the events that led to her ill-fated imprisonment. While the motivation behind Mother Superior’s plans for the pregnant young women inside the convent might easily be guessed, the events that unfold there prove to be full of shocking incidents. Moments of graphic brutality punctuate a cat-and-mouse game of psychological warfare between the ruthless Mother Superior and the determined Mary, whom she insists on re-christening as ‘Agatha’.
Director Bousman is also known for theatre work around Los Angeles, and for St. Agatha he has utilized his familiar troupe of actors. It is the first film role for the young Sabrina Kern, and she does sterling work. Her Mary is a layered character – guilt-ridden, desperate, but with huge reservoirs of strength and ingenuity. The guilty trauma from Mary’s past combined with the guilt of her insubordination rebounding on her fellow inmates, adds tension to an already distressing and terrifying predicament. The viewer can only hope that her character will find a strategy which will bring her freedom and perhaps even a moment of revenge.
Opposed to Kern’s sympathetic protagonist is Carolyn Hennesy’s Mother Superior – one of the most icy and callous horror villains you’re likely to come across. Her robotic underling nuns (Trin Miller, Marsha Fee Berger, Candy Rachor) serve to enhance her cunning, pseudo-religious facade.
‘Nunspoitation’, as any ‘sploitation’ film, has an acknowledged fetishistic element. Sadistic nuns abusing vulnerable young girls has been a source of a certain kind of grisly titillation going back through De Sade to mediaeval times. Director Darren Lynn Bousman began his feature filmmaking career by directing the first three sequels in the Saw horror franchise – so he’s pretty familiar with torture scenarios. In St. Agatha, this previous experience comes into effect whenever he chooses to ramp up the tension.
Bousman’s nuns are malicious in the most exploitive way, finding nauseating ways to torment their powerless wards, physically and psychologically. Even if you have control of your gag reflex, expect to have it tested at times. Eventually, the horror convention of ‘the final girl’ comes into play, but of course, not before a score of other young women are shown to suffer in various gory ways.
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