Darren Lynn Bousman is back in the director’s seat with the psychologically driven horror film, ST. AGATHA. Known for his work on SAW II-IV, Repo: The Genetic Opera, and The Devil’s Carnival, this film marks a slight redirection of sorts from his gory SAW franchise days. However, no one can deny that he knows how to ramp up the tension and make an audience uncomfortable and he succeeds in doing that once more with ST. AGATHA.
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 lair 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.
For those familiar with Catholicism and the various saints celebrated, it will be difficult to miss how the writers pay homage to the venerated martyr St. Agatha through the main character Mary. Not considered a well known saint in the States, it was personally fun for me to connect the similar threads between Mary and her newly christened namesake. We see the gradual process of Mary placing herself as the martyr, frequently being tortured every time she refuses to conform to what the nuns demand of her. It is these similarities that made me question what Mary’s fate would be right up to the movie’s conclusion.
In fact, I would say that I have to give a lot of credit to the writers for writing a film that leaves much to mull over as soon as the movie ends. From the saintly references down to themes concerning the dangers of conformity, complicity, and an arguably taboo discussion on how society views women who go against the grain (in this case, unmarried pregnant women), there is much for the audience to dissect and think about long after ST. AGATHA is done. So, I must thank screenwriters Andy Demetrio, Shaun Fletcher, Sara Sometti Michaels, and Clint Sears for coming together to deliver something that prompts thoughtful discussions.
That being said, there were areas in the story that I felt could have been improved upon. Although the writing did prompt much thought, the actual bulk of the story left me wishing for something less predictable. Within about 15 minutes of the film, it wasn’t difficult to guess where the story would go. You have a home associated with a church that has been cut of all funds. You have desperate pregnant women ostracized by society needing a place to go. Then there is the matter of feeling like we’re being told who Mary is rather than organically discovering for ourselves. Through a series of flashbacks, the audience is told about Mary’s backstory and we are allowed to watch it play out and see how her life circumstances brought her to this convent. I can see how this would be a better approach to get the audience to come to relate to Mary, but I felt it took away the fun in discovering the complexities of this woman.
ST. AGATHA marks the feature film debut for leading actress Sabrina Kern. And, unfortunately, I would say that she might have been the weakest performer in what I would consider to be a very solid cast. Her performance as Mary left me wanting more than what was delivered. While there were certainly more physically intensive moments in the movie where I could invest in the fear and urgency that Kern was delivering, there were other moments where I questioned the authenticity of the performance given. In particular, I wanted to believe in Mary’s gradual descent into chaos and madness as she continuously tries to buck against the Mother Superior’s controlling, conformist ways. But, as much as I tried to convince myself that the descent was realistic, I found myself unable to follow the path that her performance tried to lead me down.
The weakness in Kern’s performance becomes more pronounced when she is in scene with Carolyn Hennesy’s Mother Superior. Hennesy happily munches on the scenery, guaranteeing that anyone who has ever dealt with a Mother Superior or even just a matriarch receives chills up their spines from the memories her performance will evoke. Her Mother Superior is in control almost every step of the way and you can’t help but be completely pulled into her performance. It’s this confident and dominant performance she exerts that contributes to part of why Kern’s performance shines weaker in comparison.
ST. AGATHA will not be everyone’s cup of tea. For those who are expecting a horror film akin to THE NUN with jump scares, cheap thrills, and little impression made, this will not be the film for you. If you are comfortable with slow builds, feeling a variety of emotions, and a story that will provoke you, but make you wish for something truly unsettling, ST. AGATHA is for you. For some horror fans, that may not be enough to prompt them to give this film a try, so I will end my review with this thought. I know that after my initial viewing of ST. AGATHA, there has been so much for me to munch on and dissect that even though I didn’t love the film, I love how much it made me think. And, ultimately, that is what movies should do. They should stick with us after the end credits stop rolling. If that’s not enough of an endorsement, I’m not sure what I can tell you.
ST. AGATHA opens in theaters on February 8, 2019.