Movie Review: ST. AGATHA
We need to talk about Darren Lynn Bousman. He 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 bad in comparison to its premise.2 He is the director of the eventually forthcoming Spiral, the Saw revival that unexpectedly, almost unaccountably stars and is spearheaded by Chris Rock. He’s worked steadily for fifteen years, and other than maybe Repo!, and that’s a strong maybe, hasn’t made a really good film in that time.
He hasn’t made anything truly awful, either, at least. Just a slew of movies that manage to underwhelm, miss the mark, or just 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. “Basically Flowers in the Attic but with evil nuns housing pregnant women” isn’t much of a 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. And holy hell, the writing is pretty damn close to lousy.
The characterization is flat out nonsensical. The lead, Mary / Agatha consistently makes nonsensical 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 him in town, where the person 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. And, of course, the dialogue is routinely bad.
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 wildly, 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 rather inconsistent. Is this a more serious horror drama with a message? The kind of film where characters use the term “gaslighting” at least a few years before the term was in use because it’s just that important to make that sort of statement? 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.
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 not just bad, but blandly, ordinarily bad.