Though the seams in St. Agatha show early and are fairly obvious, there’s something to be admired in this ballsy nunsploitation horror film that doesn’t shy away from getting a little crazy from time to time.
St. Agatha is the latest from Darren Lynn Bousman. The director is best known for some funhouse scares in Saw II and Saw III, as well as some actual funhouses in the horror rock opera The Devil’s Carnival. If anything, Bousman is known within the genre for grandeur and spectacle. St. Agatha shows a little more restraint than his previous movies, but then again, even Elton John can dress down to business casual from time to time.
St. Agatha hops around in time in the beginning of the film, but it’s the rare example of jagged editing that intentionally disorients, but eventually clarifies just about everything. First, we see a young woman screaming from inside a metal coffin. Then she’s in a truck with someone we assume is her father. Then that same woman is at a soup kitchen talking to a nun. After that, we’re allowed to begin piecing together her timeline and how she got to be living in a convent.
Aptly-named Mary (Sabrina Kern) is unwed and pregnant. Her homelife is tumultuous and her boyfriend is wandering, so she seeks help from the nearby nuns who have fed her soup. It’s the early 1950s, and without them she would have nowhere to go. Soon after arriving at the convent, Mary realizes that these nuns might clothe and feed her, but beyond that they offer little kindness. Instead, they feed her a good dose of old-fashioned Catholic horror.
Her only minor comfort is the relationships she’s able to form with the other pregnant women there. Though they’re forbidden from speaking to one another, this lot of knocked-up ladies are no strangers to bending rules and keeping secrets. Mary’s closest confidant, Sarah (Hannah Fierman), is a bit unhinged mentally, and Mary must figure out which parts of Sarah’s stories are true.
While you might expect a horror film in a big convent with nuns to take its time in showing its horrors, St. Agatha dives right into the pit of terror the first night that Mary is there. Certain elements of atmospheric dread are cultivated, as well as some tense power plays between Mary and the nuns, but overall the scares in St. Agatha come from how bonkers the convent is.
St. Agatha is by no means a perfect movie, but I do have to give it credit for having a strong voice and for being unapologetically over-the-top in some of its scares, both visually and thematically. These unabashed but low-budget horrors seem to be making a slow return, and I enjoy watching the cinematic one-upmanship return to the screen.