[Review] 'The Convent' provides plenty of shocks, but will have you praying for engaging characters
You can’t keep a bad nun down. Over the top gore. Torture. Nun rage. The Convent has all the elements of your average nunsploitation drive-in flick, while tonally trying to be something more than that. As we learn with this one though, sometimes it’s just better to stick to the formula…
…Like Christ himself, the nunsploitation genre has risen again, likely with the popularity of The Nun, and most recently seen in Darren Lynn Bousman’s St. Agatha. Directed by Paul Hyett (the man who gave us the 2015 sleeper werewolf flick, Howl), and written by Hyett and Conal Palmer (The Seasoning House), The Convent is a conventional horror story which follows Persephone (Hannah Arterton), a young woman accused of witchcraft in the 17th century. With a choice between death and joining a nunnery for salvation, Persephone of course chooses a life of creeping around dark castles with other women of the cloth, but discovers that there is another evil waiting at the nunnery besides relentless boredom.
If you’ve seen the ads for this movie, then you know this film features big name actor and one of my personal favorites, Michael Ironside, as The Magistrate sentencing Persephone to her doom. But his name on the poster is a LIE, because as many indie films do, Ironside’s name is a coup to get you to watch the film. He’s literally only in it for one scene, and oh my god but is that Clare Higgins of Hellraiser fame playing the evil Reverend Mother? Both of these talented veterans make just about anything they’re in better, and the same goes for The Convent. Higgins not quite but almost feels as if she’s picking up the torch from her role as Julia in Hellraiser, spitting lines with that natural menace of hers.
Unfortunately, the rest of the cast pales in comparison. To their credit, most of the performances in The Convent are actually quite good. The problem is that the writing and direction are all so one note, that you have to scrape the bottom of the barrel of holy water just to find some personality in these people. Persephone hardly stands out as our heroine, acting more as a vehicle for the audience than someone we’re actually rooting for. Many of these girls, whether it’s Sister Emeline (Rosie Day) or Sister Elizabeth (Ania Marson), blend together so much I was practically begging the writers to be obnoxious by dropping character names every two minutes. I guess all nuns look alike? No? Again, the actresses are fine, but the filmmakers struggle to get any one of them to pop off screen in an engaging way.
And that’s a large problem with The Convent. For everything that’s great about it, there’s another area where the filmmakers failed to keep my interest in the main story. But it wasn’t without trying. Hyett presents the film with a heavy gothic theme, complete with looming castles and black, raging storms straight out of a hammer horror film. The film is well-shot by Neil Oseman, who brings a certain beauty to the picture that your average nunsploitation flick fails to capture. Sure, some of the digital FX which makes up said storms and Persephone’s memories of her mother burning alive look cheap, but are never grating enough to take away from the breath-taking quality of some of the images.
Speaking of imagery, The Convent thrives on shocking the viewer with so much blood and grotesque moments, you’d think you were watching Passion of the Christ. The lead ghost, demon, nun-possessor, whatever you’d like to call it, is a real sight for sore eyes, taking inspiration from (I’m assuming) The Nun, with its glowing yellow peepers. Just like its fellow sisters in the sisterhood of nunsploitation, there are some genuinely eye-popping effects in this film. Fans of gruesome practical FX will eat up what The Convent is serving. Hyett consistently goes for the most grotesque framing possible when it comes to the blood spilling, and this is easily the highlight of the film, culminating in a finale which might as well be a bloodbath. In a culture where it seems like every horror film has to be debated on whether or not it’s truly horror, there is no mistaking that The Convent is pure, bloody horror.
You’d be surprised to learn that, despite the incredible FX in the film, I’ve watched The Convent a few times, and struggle to get into it each time. I’ve already mentioned how the only character I’d even be interested in getting drinks with is Higgins as the Reverend Mother purely from a personality standpoint (plus she seems like a woman who can drink dudes under the table), but the story itself is another major issue. The plot behind The Convent is about as basic as it gets, without any real intrigue, and a stagnant mystery that makes the film feel about as exciting as a Sunday at church. The evil in the film rarely has much presence, and because the characters are so stagnant, it’s difficult to engage with the emotional story the filmmakers are attempting to tell with Persephone. This is the rare case where I will say a film may have been better off embracing it's over-the-top roots and silly nature, because as it stands now, the tone streaming throughout The Convent is like a flat-lining heart monitor with the occasional, strong blip.
Outside of some of the grislier moments, The Convent is a nice callback to nunsploitation for fans of that genre, but doesn’t do enough to pull us into the story and keep the audience on the edge of their seats in-between the thrilling shocks.
The Convent is now out on VOD from Vertical Entertainment.
By Matt Konopka
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