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.
The skeletal figure of Sister Susan (Marsha Fee Berger) approaches a haggard and obviously pregnant Mary (Sabrina Kern) at the dining hall of a homeless shelter in rural Georgia. Slipping Mary a card, Sister Susan offers refuge for expectant women. It’s the 1950s and a woman in her condition is not so much pitied as she is frowned upon. Alone, destitute, Mary has nothing but the clothes on her back, the bruises from her abusive father (Jayson Warner Smith), and a baby growing inside of her. That’s not to mention a recent tragedy that sends Mary to strike out on her own in the worst of circumstances, at the mercy of any who offer help.
Father Andrew (Seth Michaels) drops Mary off at the edge of a driveway in the country. Pine trees towering over her, she makes her way to a secluded plantation estate run by a convent of nuns. Mother Superior (Carolyn Hennesy) greets Mary and welcomes her with open arms and conditions. After a trial period, Mary can choose to stay with the nuns and a collection of pregnant women in exchange for refuge and submissive behavior… and something else.
“…Mary can choose to stay with the nuns and a collection of pregnant women in exchange for refuge…”
Of course, being a horror movie, we expect a very dark turn, and we are hardly disappointed. Paula (Trin Miller), one of the nuns’ progeny rules with an iron fist and a slave-like devotion to her duties. As Mary settles into her dorm with the other expectant residents including Catherine (Courtney Halverson) and Sarah (Hannah Fierman), a slow burn of revelations emerge. We soon realize that the older white couples visiting the young ladies are not really concerned with the moms per se. We learn where the money comes from and why we learn that Mother Superior is anything but kind and gentle. All of these very expected yet still shocking and relentlessly entertaining.
Darren Lynn Bousman, the filmmaker behind three of the Saw films, Repo: The Genetic Rock Opera, and The Devil’s Carnival knows how to stretch a dime. Joseph White’s cinematography expands the rather claustrophobic pallette with saturated streams of light coming from furnaces, stained glass, and ambient lighting. Molly Coffee’s production design matches White’s talent with an atmospheric look and vibrant style.
Across the board, the performances are much better than one would expect from a low budget thriller. Kern is a substantial leading lady that is at once sympathetic and commanding. A badass grifter from back in the day, she knows how to handle her business, and she is a joy to watch. Fierman as one of the many women being taken advantage of is just another great performance from this delightful actor.
“A badass grifter from back in the day…she is a joy to watch.”
Then there is Carolyn Hennesy as Mother Superior. Ruling with an icy demeanor and a razor-sharp smirk, Hennesy’s performance is a revelation. Rarely ever raising her voice above a stern scolding, she has the presence of an ice queen of the pulpit. Here we get a fiendishly entertaining and delicious villain that sends chills through every scene that she inhabits. My only complaint comes not from Carolyn Hennesy’s performance, but the fact that we never really get to see her lose her cool. We, at some point, want to see her go batshit crazy but it never happens. Even Hannibal Lecter went nuts for a split second allowing us to know what he was capable of.
St. Agatha is a fine thriller that is much better than you will expect it to be. Bousman guides a coherent and nimble narrative to shocking and satisfying builds. HIs cast is solid, and his crew is on point. Even screenwriters Andy Demetrio, Shaun Fletcher, Sara Sometti Michaels, and Clint Sears should be given kudos for the beginnings of something truly unsettling, but we never reach the depths of hell we hope to reach.
St. Agatha (2018) Directed by Darren Lynn Bousman. Written by Andy Demetrio, Shaun Fletcher, Sara Sometti Michaels, Clint Sears. Starring Sabrina Kern, Carolyn Hennesy, Courtney Halverson, Seth Michaels, Trin Miller, Lindsay Seim, Hannah Fierman.
7 out of 10 stars