Movie Review: ST. AGATHA
Darren Lynn Bousman directed the last of the even slightly defensible Saw films. He directed Repo! The Genetic Opera, among the last competently made, critically dismissed but sincerely defended cult films to be released. 1. He directed Abbatoir, a film that is almost impossibly disappointing considering its premise.2 He is the director of the eventually forthcoming Spiral, the Saw revival that unexpectedly stars and is spearheaded by Chris Rock. He’s worked steadily for fifteen years, and depending on how you feel about Repo!, has made at most one really good film in that time3.
He hasn’t made anything truly awful, either. Just a slew of movies that manage to underwhelm, miss the mark, or don’t strive for much (beyond the aforementioned Repo! which is a wildly violent horror rock opera). St. Agatha almost rises above this almost entirely due to his strengths as a director. The premise isn’t a selling point. “Sort of like Flowers in the Attic but with evil nuns housing pregnant women” isn’t the greatest pitch. The acting is okay, aside from the lead evil nun, played by Carolyn Hennessy, who is going for it and getting there in every scene she’s in. Overall, though, while the rest of the acting isn’t bad, it’s nothing to stay for. The writing, unfortunately, veers closer to bad on occasion.
The characterization is nonsensical. The lead, Mary / Agatha consistently makes indefensible decisions even before the film starts. Like running a grift with her boyfriend in a small town on one of the locals, and then still being seen with her partner in town, where the mark they conned could very easily spot them. Oops? Likewise, the rest of the girls in the convent take indefensible actions (or engage in inaction) just to keep the story in stasis until we reach the climax. The motivation of the nuns to be as evil as they are isn’t clear. They’re baby farming in the 1950’s…and needlessly employing sadism and arcane brainwashing tactics that would regularly risk the health of the babies that are their bread-and-butter? Risk the girls that are their gold-egg-laying geese? When we find out later that they’re running low on cash? “Well, because they’re fanatics” doesn’t really cut it. Historically, yes, there are certainly genuine accounts of sadistic medical staff taking advantage of the disenfranchised to pick from, but not so much when the sadism would directly jeopardize their entire corrupt business model.
So what is there to stay for in this film? Bousman is great when things need to get visceral, when you need to be made to squirm, to really feel that something is painful, that a situation is dire and seemingly hopeless. He has a feel for that sort of thing, and injects it into the film at regular enough intervals to make you want to keep watching, wondering what will happen next, wondering if those inflicting the pain will eventually get theirs or if this is careening toward an unhappy ending. And when he restrains himself, he can stage a solidly tense moment or two.
Unfortunately, his strengths as a director don’t outweigh his weaknesses. He can’t help but indulge in rapidly cut shots that he thinks are shorthand for “this moment is insane” or “this person is going insane” or both. Instead it cheapens the moment. His musical choices are, to say the least, questionable, often not befitting the moment or even the overall tone he seems to be going for. Then again, the tone he wants to set comes off as inconsistent. Is this a more serious horror drama with a message? Or is it the kind of movie where a weakened and wounded woman who just gave birth still has the strength to choke another woman out with an umbilical cord? I suppose a master director could do a better job of having it both ways, but Bousman–capable as he can be–is no master. Not yet, at least.
And the strange thing is, it feels like in an alternate universe he could have been. But in the one we inhabit, he’s the guy who makes movies like St. Agatha, which…
Final Verdict: …I cannot recommend.
- As opposed to cult films that don’t meet one or more of those criteria. Mandy, for instance, was a critical darling. Many others, like The Room, obviously don’t pass the competency test.
- Someone is removing murder-rooms from murder-houses to reassemble them into a murder-mansion made of murder-rooms. This movie should have been incredible. Instead it’s bland.
- Here’s hoping Spiral gives him another good one, though