If there’s one sub-genre of horror that is struggling to remain fresh, it’s the exorcism film…
…Right up there with zombies, we’ve reached a point with exorcism movies where it feels like we've seen it all and they are a dime a dozen, with little difference between them. Many are derivative. Almost all are predictable. There are only so many ways to exorcise a demon and make it interesting. Regardless, director Mickey Reece (Climate of the Hunter) has found a way to make his exorcism film Agnes stand out from the recent herd, but he does so in such a way that to say it will be divisive amongst fans is an understatement.
Many of you are going to downright hate it.
Written by Reece and John Selvidge (T-rex) and having just premiered at Tribeca, Agnes takes us back in time to what feels like the 70s to a religious convent where Sister Agnes (Hayley McFarland) is believed to be possessed by a demon. Father Donaghue (Ben Hall), facing allegations of pedophilia, and his soon to be a priest student, Ben (Jake Horowitz) are sent to the convent to investigate, where temptation and struggles in belief reside.
If the words “arthouse horror” send you running for the hills and praying for demonic comfort food such as Night of the Demons, you can go ahead and pass on Agnes. The power of this film will likely not compel you past the midway point. Anyone who has any familiarity with the combination of Reece and Selvidge will know that their work doesn’t exactly follow traditional narrative structure, and Agnes is far from an exception. I’d even go as far as to describe it as stream of consciousness storytelling, completely unbound by “rules”.
Agnes starts off strong, setting up what seems like your standard exorcism movie after Agnes—looking straight out of a Tim Burton movie at times—completely loses her shit during dinner with the convent, a stream of obscenities spitting from her lips. We then meet Donaghue and Ben, your stereotypical weathered priest facing a crisis of faith paired with a boyish lad whose faith has yet to be shaken. The setup is standard but the execution is not, as there’s an immediate, uncomfortable acknowledgement of Donaghue’s pedophilia, in front of Ben, who was once his student, and feels the need to ask those sending them off on their mission if he will be safe with Donaghue, to which he receives laughter and reaffirmations that Ben isn’t a child, so he should be good.
That cringe you’re experiencing right now? That’s the vibe of Agnes in a nutshell.
Agnes is awkward with a capital A-men. Once Donaghue and Ben arrive at the convent, there’s discussion between Sister Mary (Molly C. Quinn), Sister Ruth (Rachel True, who goes highly under-used here), Mother Superior (Mary Buss) and the others regarding the men, with the sisters giddy over the idea of men staying with them, much to Mother Superior’s chagrin. Just about everyone in this film is horny, and while Agnes never divulges into a straight-up nunsploitation flick packed with sex and violence, there are heavy undertones of that and the sense that it could break into a satanic orgy at any moment.
But, for better or worse, that’s not the intention of Agnes. Not at all.
In fact, like a shy possessed girl, Agnes isn’t ever what you think it is. The film features exceptional, eerie sound design and a beautiful score by Nicholas Poss, but the horror is otherwise severely lacking. Instead, Agnes plays closer to a parody, filled with quirky, tongue in cheek humor and over the top characters such as Father Black (Chris Browning), another exorcist who arrives in a red corvette and reeks of showmanship. Performances in this first half are strange, exaggerated, sometimes silly even. Some will call it “bad acting”, but to me it feels more like Reece mocking the church, it’s followers and the very idea of demonic possession.
Now all of that might sound fun to you, and it is, but where Agnes is going to lose viewers and struggle to get them back is in its sudden shift to what might as well be a completely different film.
I won’t spoil what’s happening in this second piece other than to say it turns the focus to Mary—it’s ultimately her story, after all—but the tonal shift here cannot be understated. Agnes is like two entirely different movies sewn together by a common thread of the questioning of faith. What starts as a tongue in cheek exorcism movie suddenly becomes a meditative discussion of the absence of god and the cruel reality of the real world. Reece pulls somewhat of a Psycho, only rather than continuing the narrative set up by the first half, we’re left instead with vague wrap-ups of those loose ends and an entirely new conflict. Those who appreciate experimental works may find some interest in Reece’s all too risky attempt at placing the exciting part of the story at the front and the slow-burn at the back end, but anyone who came in excited for an exorcism movie will find themselves not just disappointed, but unbearably confused. At first, I thought I had blacked out and missed a large chunk of the film, it’s that jarring.
Curious narrative choices aside, Agnes is overall a well-crafted movie with a visually pleasing aesthetic that captures the time period well, eye-popping production design, and a captivating performance by Quinn that helps steady the rockiness of the tone shifts. Reece doesn’t make standard movies, and in order to get any enjoyment out of Agnes, you have to look at it more like poetry, in which themes and philosophy are more important than story. It’s a very specific required taste, and one that’s going to leave a sour residue on most of your tongues. Agnes isn’t the spooky exorcism film it first presents itself as, but that doesn’t take away from the film succeeding as a fascinating discussion piece on the fallacies of faith.
By Matt Konopka