★★★★1/2 out of ★★★★★
Directed by Darren Lynn Bousman
A 1950’s tale of a desperate young pregnant woman who makes a costly decision to join a convent as a refuge of last resort. It might be the best scary nun movie you’ll see! (And yes, I know what that means.)
This was the centerpiece film of the Overlook Film Festival, which I have been attending, and St. Agatha was making its world debut at the Le Petit Theatre in the French Quarter of New Orleans, a dreamy and boozy place to serve as the host venue. The theater was abuzz with the red-carpet vibe in the tiny lobby out front, as fans mingled easily with the cast and crew prior to the show. It was quite an event, and the Festival was wise to pick this as a showcase film in their event.
St. Agatha is, as described by director Darren Lynn Bousman, a “nunsploitation film” (love that term!) about a young woman, Mary (Sabrina Kern) who is newly pregnant, and out of housing options after getting turned out by her abusive father in the wake of a tragic domestic accident, and unwilling to follow her grifter boyfriend who is fleeing town from those he cheated. In desperation, she takes shelter in a soup kitchen and is invited to get support and a fresh start on life in a rural convent. Bad choice? Yeah, bad choice. The convent is strictly run by the Mother Superior (Carolyn Hennesy) who chews up the screen with just under-the-surface malice. (And later, some real over the top malice!) It’s a Nurse Ratchet-y role that really cuts through the screen.
St Agatha builds its horror slowly, but directly. Right from the jump, it is clear that the nuns run a tight, and a cruel ship and misbehavior is punished very harshly. Forced to renounce her past, Mary is forced to change her name to Agatha under duress by being sealed in a coffin. Though she exhibits incredible will, Mary is eventually broken.
Bousman is wise to avoid jump scares, as this movie is not built for the BOO gotcha moments. Fear not though, horror fans, as this film easily earns its horror badges, and when the horror comes, it comes strong. On the Scariest Things Meter, I put St. Agatha at about a 17. Shocking, but not repulsive. It’s a fine line.
For those of you curious… here’s a preview of the big shockers delivered, in shorthand:
Three… two… one… no peeking! You’ve been warned! OK here goes:
- Eat Like a Bird
- Bear Traps!
- barf consumption
- Self-silencing, with scissors
- Umbilical cord
Each of those moments earned gasps and groans from the appreciative audience. And, they are placed strategically throughout the film to allow some rest and recovery before hitting you with the next big doozy. Bousman’s horror experience from the Saw II, III, and IV certainly shows up in these inventive scenes, particularly the bear traps, which were a constant lurking danger from the beginning of the film.
OK, now that that’s over… you can safely come back to the review!
I really appreciated screenwriter Sara Sometti Michael’s tight script. Every element placed reinforces a story point. Actions have consequences, and often brutal ones. Mary’s past shady backstory is shown in flashback form rather than exposition, and it’s effectively rolled out through the film. There is no Deus ex-machina moment, forcing Mary to earn her way to freedom through guile and grit. From front to back the movie just makes sense.
The large (and largely female) cast do themselves proud, In a curious way, this is a Final Girl movie, but rather than a masked killer, it is from the Mother Superior and her nun enforcers that provide the threat. The Mother Superior is always a step ahead, very cleverly foiling each opportunity to gain freedom… until in the end, she submits the scrap of information that Mary/Agatha seizes upon to try and free herself.
The only criticism that I would have is that the movie runs a little long. There may have been one escape attempt too many, but because the script is so watertight, I can forgive it these sins. In talking with Michaels, the editing process was agonizing as they had so much they wanted to say, and I think they were able to achieve quite a bit. You always felt a through-line for the story, and every revealed bit of information has relevance. St. Agatha is a smart and beautiful looking film, and if you want to know more about it, listen in to my interview with Bousman.
And, a shout out to Marsha Berger (Sister Susan), Trin Miller (Paula), and Candy Rachor (Sister Helen) who proved that for scary nuns, they actually were the furthest thing from being evil in person. IRL these women are sweethearts and not the dour and strict un-fun nuns. Here’s hoping St. Agatha opens some professional doors for you, ladies!
St. Agatha is not yet rated (probably will be R) and does not yet have a wide release date. As soon as a trailer is made available, The Scariest Things will post that for you!