The Pleasure and Pain of St. Agatha
The Catholic Church has been a lot of things throughout the ages and, if you've read any history from the church's inception to recent headlines you'll know what an absolute horror show much of that history has been. Following World War II there was a wave of Puritanism that swept Western society and there are several recorded cases through America and Europe of young, unwed mothers being quietly sent away to convents where their children were sold off like cattle and the mothers themselves were abused for their "sin". There have also been several films, especially in recent years, that have grotesquely and brutally fictionalized this violence and psychological torture and St. Agatha has definitely won the prize for its own unique depiction of events.
Set in 1957, the story follows Mary, a young woman who dreams of running away with her street hustler boyfriend Jimmy and her younger brother to find a better life. But after she gets pregnant and her younger brother tragically dies, she finds herself with no choice but to join a convent, temporarily, in order to have her child. It becomes apparent almost immediately that Mary has gotten herself into a seemingly inescapable hell on earth within the confines of the secluded convent. What follows is a series of grueling tortures levied against Mary and the other women who have fallen victim to this religious sect designed to break their spirits and make sure that the torments of hell are a small price to pay comparatively.
From director Darren Lynn Bousman (Saw II, Repo: The Genetic Opera, Mother's Day) the film is definitely a feather in his cap. It's psychologically grueling, emotionally unsettling, and stunningly violent without being over the top gruesome. Don't get me wrong, there are some stomach churning moments including an umbilical cord strangulation. I'm more a fan of creature features and ghost stories as opposed to the torture porn and ultra violence that usually accompanies this particular subgenre of horror. Still, as emotionally and psychologically intense as St Agatha was, it was still enjoyable. It was also a movie where everyone got what they deserved in the end which is rare these days. Seeing the bad guys punished as much as they've punished others is always rewarding.
The cinematography is excellent, though nothing I'd call particularly groundbreaking or new, is still haunting and unsettling. The fog rolling in through the desolate forest, the light shining on the flaking paint of the old house with its ominous cross perched on a small steeple all sets a very distinct and uneasy tone for audiences. I'm a believer that music is as important as the overall cinematography when it comes to creating environment and suspense in a film but the music of St. Agatha was subdued and overall unremarkable. That's not to say it wasn't present and didn't have a hand in creating the atmosphere of discomfort that fills the film, but it wasn't as integral or memorable as scores in other horror films.
Meanwhile, performance was the everything and the women of St. Agatha made sure you never felt a moment at ease in their presence. The sisters lead by the Mother Superior (Carolyn Hennesy) and her best enforcer Paula (Trin Miller) are absolutely the best villains a film like this could ask for. Meanwhile, Mary (Sabrina Kern) -later renamed Agatha by the abusive Mother Superior- is a woman who is easy to relate to and one character who you immediately feel a connection to the moment she makes her first appearance on screen. Abused, neglected, and hoping for a better life for herself and the ones she loves, she's genuinely a character that the audience builds a rapport with and relates to which makes it so much harder to watch the abuse and torment she suffers. Sarah (Hannah Fierman) becomes her friend and pays the price for it in a gruesome way which makes it all the more delightful to see her silently gain her own revenge for the torture she's dealt during the film.
For those who enjoy this particular niche of the horror genre, St. Agatha is a masterpiece and a film you're going to want to watch a few times to study some of the more subtle details and nuances. For me, it was an experience to be had. While I may not personally rewatch it -again, not exactly my favorite flavor of horror- it's definitely a movie I'm happy to have seen and one I can't recommend strongly enough. St. Agatha releases in theaters February 8th so check your local listings for details.
Dan is an author, editorialist, podcaster, and horror culture & lifestyle correspondent from the Southeast. You can find Dan's stories at Danno of the Dead Blog and through PDI Press.