Set in the 1950s in small-town Georgia, a pregnant young woman named Agatha seeks refuge in a convent. What first starts out as the perfect place to have a child turns into a dark layer where silence is forced, ghastly secrets are masked, and every bit of will power Agatha has is tested as she learns the sick and twisted truth of the convent and the odd people that lurk inside its halls.
Nuns in films, without exception, are scary. Look at Killer Nun, The Conjuring 2, Nuns on the Run and the Nun from The Blues Brothers. Continuing this trend of nonnenkloster based terror is St Agatha, the latest from director Darren Lynn Bousman (Saw II – IV) and screenwriters Clint Sears, Shaun Fletcher, Sara Sometti Michaels and Andy Demetrio.
The year is 1957 and the very pregnant and very single Mary (Sabrina Kern) has been packed off a home for unwed mothers situated in the darkest part of the darkest woods. The home is run by Mother Superior (General Hospital’s Carolyn Hennessy), a thoroughly suspicious looking woman who appears to take great pride out of the fact that the Vatican cut her funding years ago. The reason? They didn’t like her methods. Bolstered by having the air of a nun who is DTF, Mother Superior is clearly someone you should be putting as much distance between as possible. Alas, as a series of flashbacks shows, Mary is kind of stuck in her predicament seemingly bereft of loved ones who would care where she is.
Looking suitably gloomy and gothic, St Agatha is an unusual beast in that there’s much you’ll remember from it and tell others, you’ll be forgiven for selling the film as a rollicking nunsploitation flick, but it’s really not. Yes, there are nuns with sniper rifles, bear traps in the woods, and at one point, a nun is strangled to death by an umbilical cord. However, before you get there, you must traverse a wilderness of nothing. St Agatha is a glacially slow for a large part of its running time, before the adrenalin kicks in and all hell breaks loose. And even then, it never quite feels like the accelerator is all the way down. Bousman and his gaggle of writers want to gross you out, but whether it’s interference from the studio or a stylistic choice by the director, they seem to fear how far they can push it. And yes, I’m aware I just sold you on the film having a nun being garroted by an umbilical cord.
No, at times, the film seems to shy away from it’s on perversions. Take the scene where one of the home’s pregnant mothers experiences some morning sickness at breakfast. Discreetly vomiting into her breakfast, she asks to be excused in order to lie down. Her request is granted on the condition that she finishes off her breakfast along with its newly added contents. Whilst I’m not saying that any of us would relish watching a woman consuming her own puke, the film decides that the whole affair is just too much and instead, we focus on Mary’s disgusted visage. In a sea of nun death and misery, the film’s moments of discretion suggest that someone, somewhere, was hoping for a PG-13 edit to get bums on seats. It’s blood lust never tallies up with its conservatism.
In terms of performances, it’s perhaps the aforementioned Hennessy who rises to the top of the pile. With her dyed red hair peeking out of her wimple, the actor throws herself into the role. She devours whole sets of scenery in a manner that makes you think she unlikely had to have tea when she got home in the evening. At times, she reminds you of Jessica Lange’s brilliant turn as Sister Jude in the less than brilliant second series of American Horror Story. Kern is solid as the determined Mary, but this is most definitely Hennessy’s show.
A straight forward thriller with flashes of insanity, St Agatha doesn’t promise much at the beginning and manages to lose its way right at the moment when it finally realizes what it wants to do. Come for the gloom but stay for the manic performances and umbilical chords.