When I was kid, I was forced to attend CCD, aka, Sunday school. The hours of boredom and time away from video games weren’t the only reasons I hated going. While there, I was constantly yelled at and mistreated by the nuns, once for drinking water from the fountain “the wrong way”. Tell me, what’s the “correct way” to drink from a fountain, huh? Luckily, this wasn’t in the days of getting smacked in the hands by rulers, but still, there’s a reason I became agnostic, and have never trusted organized religion since. So, it only makes sense that the premise of St. Agatha is one that affirms my mistrust of strict-lipped nuns.
Directed by Darren Lynn Bousman (Saw 2-4) and written by Andy Demetrio, Shaun Fletcher, Sara Sometti Michaels, and Clint Sears, St. Agatha stars Sabrina Kern as Mary, a pregnant woman in the 1950s who seeks refuge in a convent. Joining other pregnant women who have nowhere else to go, the convent at first seems like the perfect place to have her baby, but Mary soon learns that not all is what it seems, and these nuns harbor a sinister secret which threatens the lives of Mary and the others.
Bousman immediately lures the viewer into St. Agatha with a strong, gothic atmosphere that sets the tone for what is ultimately a dark battle between good and evil. Accompanied by a haunting score from Mark Sayfritz which is reminiscent of the strange lullaby playing throughout Rosemary’s Baby, Bousman pulls out every stop in the book of “creepy clichés”, from heavy fog filling the woods surrounding the desolate convent, to ominous church bells welcoming Mary as she approaches. There is no question that there is something wrong with this place. Every door has locks on the outside, and every window has bars, all of which Mother Superior (Carolyn Hennesy) claims is for protection against break-ins. No one seems right, and dread slithers through the halls. The sound design only works to emphasize the creepiness of it all, with the unsettling sigh of ghosts whispering around every corner. Of course, creaky floorboards and flickering lights may sound like tropey tricks to get under the skin of the viewer, and they are, but in the talented hands of Bousman and his team, all of their skills combine for what is a highly effective sense of mystery and unease that assures the audience that we are in for something horrific, one way or another.
In fact, you could say that the writers expect us to know the do’s and don’ts of horror, using that against the audience to subvert expectations. Going back to Rosemary’s Baby, Mary is quickly made to do things against her will once she arrives at the convent. The other women tell her not to talk to them or she will be punished, they hint that something terrible happened to the girl who Mary is taking the bed of, and Mother Superior explains to Mary that she is not capable of taking care of the child herself, and must be on a strict regimen of vitamins against her will. Sound familiar? It should, because it’s a hell of a lot like what occurs in Rosemary’s Baby. So much so, in fact, that the filmmakers cleverly lead us to believe we are heading down one avenue so confidently, that it’s almost frustrating to learn just how damn wrong we are. You’ll sit there screaming for Mary to screw those pills and bail, but we have no idea why outside of the fact that all of this feels like something we’ve seen before. But it’s not, making St. Agatha a surprising thrill-ride that will have you guessing until the very end at exactly what the hell is going on with these psychotic nuns.
As for Mary, we understand her pretty easily. Atoning for a life of sin and guilt, Mary has come to this place as a last resort, leaving her vulnerable and easily manipulated, because she has nowhere else to go. Some horror films trap their characters in a cabin in the woods or all the way up in space, but St. Agatha doesn’t just trap its victims in an isolated convent, it locks them away in their own psyches and swallows the key. Kern portrays Mary as a likable, strong woman, sweet yet with a touch of vinegar, so we believe her when she wants to leave but stays anyway, because she comes off as someone who seems stuck rather than naïve. Bousman and cinematographer Joseph White consistently toy with our perspective of Mary. Throughout the film, we get to know a little more about her, flashing back to her past which, even though she is seen conning men for money, is portrayed in a soft, divine light, as if that was her better self, and not this tired, lost version of herself which looks a lot like me on hangover Saturdays.
If only the film took more time to explore the other characters. St. Agatha is loaded with a group of talented actresses, in particularly Sarah, played by Hannah Fierman, who is phenomenally frightening as a demonic siren in V/H/S. But even though the actresses do their best, none have much to work with, as each is distant and reserved from their situation, having suffered the horrors of the convent for god knows how long. I can’t blame these girls for being quiet and terribly afraid, but each is so much so, that they might as well be paintings of sad clowns hanging on the walls. We learn next to nothing about them or who they are, since they’re all too far gone to have much of a personality anymore.
The real highlight of St. Agatha is Hennesy and her vicious performance as Mother Superior. Cunning and highly manipulative, she pretends to love these girls, taking advantage of their emotions, but could care less. She’ll stitch up your wounds in one moment, and in the next rip them out and douse them in salt, laughing maniacally the whole time. Hennesy seems to take pleasure in being evil, so much so you can practically hear her hiss like the snake offering forbidden fruit. She is the perfect villain, and Mary is her perfect foil, a wolf in sheep’s clothing herself, and just as manipulative, but in her own way. St. Agatha lives off of the psychological battle between these two as they fight to take control of the convent. Watching them fight for dominance is like watching a nasty game of ping-pong, where winner takes all and losing means getting your head sliced in half by a pendulum slowly lowering from above.
As you’d expect with a film from Bousman, St. Agatha dishes out plenty of stomach-churning vileness and torture, though nothing here is quite as violent as anything you’ll see in Bousman’s Saw films. Instead, Bousman often goes for the gross-out. At one point, we watch a woman forced to eat her own vomit, and at another, witness Mary being fed like a baby bird, which is as nasty as it sounds. You can expect to get a little queasy in any film where vomit torture is a main theme. Tongues are cut out. Throats are slashed. And as Joe Bob Briggs would say, there’s even a bit of “umbilical cord-Fu” that’ll leave you thinking well, you don’t see that every day.
Other than our side characters, my one massive complaint is that, even though Mary is interesting, the filmmakers never quite do enough with the themes inherent in her character to make what is happening at the convent seem satisfactory. St. Agatha tries to convince us and Mary that she is not a good mother and can’t handle having a child, but other than one mistake in her life, I don’t see it, and neither does Mary. The hauntings of her past come too infrequently and with little impact, and the film hardly ever leads us to believe that Mary is incapable. Yes, she struggles against the convent and trying to escape, but Mother Superior is pushing the idea that Mary is not in control of herself, and it’s an attempt that rings hollow and is never as interesting as it could be if Mary was truly affected by the scars of her past.
St. Agatha sets the viewer up for one thing, but delivers a much different story while being unable to decide exactly what it wants to be, a gothic ghost story, or a visceral piece of psychological and physical torture. Still, St. Agatha, while not nearly as strong as either, has elements of Rosemary’s Baby and Suspiria that make for a unique experience in a much more grounded reality. The ultimate reveal packs too soft of a punch to leave the audience shaken, but damnit if St. Agatha doesn’t make a solid attempt to leave us bruised and battered by the final reel.