The unholy convent is one of the oldest themes in horror literature – the first gothic novels had a strong anti-Catholic bent, so heroines were often abducted and clapped up in grim, oppressive institutions where hypocritical old sadists tortured them in the name of God. This theme mostly mutated into the evil asylum or corrupt prison in modern gothics, though the pure strain of religious-themed horror persists in the nunsploitation cycle … which is having a mini-revival a the moment, with several nun-themed guignols on show at FrightFest (The Devil’s Doorway, Luciferina) in advance of the release of the Conjuring spin-off The Nun later this season. Directed by Darren Lynn Bousman, who has been busy with eclectic genre stuff since cutting his teeth on Saw sequels (Repo! The Genetic Opera, Mother’s Day, 11-11-11, Abattoir), and scripted by multiple hands (Andy Demetrio, Shaun Fletcher, Sara Sometti Michaels, Clint Sears), this has some creaking in the attic, a few guilt-induced visions of a drowned little brother, and rituals in the basement involving coffins but abjures the ghostly in favour of all too human cruelties. It has something in common with the old British based-on-a-play melodrama Women of Twilight – set in a crooked home for unwed mothers – but mostly goes its own way.
In 1957, luckless pregnant Mary (Sabrina Kern) – with an abusive drunk Dad, that dead brother, a horn-playing boyfriend, debts and possible problems with the law – signs herself into an institution run by the stern Mother Superior (Carolyn Hennesy), and soon realises that she’s made a mistake. The nuns act like sadistic warders, all the other inmates are cowed or crazed, and she finds herself systematically cut off from the outside world, drugged and stuck in that coffin, force-fed and brainwashed into taking the name Agatha because she isn’t worthy of her own. In a slightly anachronistic bit of dialogue, she complains of gaslighting – though Gaslight was a 1930s/40s play/film, the term didn’t come into use until surprisingly recently – but mad Mother Superior is working to erase and rewrite her whole personality, in addition to running a baby farm, possibly committing murder, and driving her charges to self-mutilation. Whereas The Devil’s Doorway indicts the church for its all-too-real historical crimes, this fudges a bit – we’re told that the Vatican has pulled its funding and support (and the Pope’s portrait), forcing Mother Superior to solicit cash from ‘donors’. And Mary quickly tumbles that ‘this is not a real convent’.
The film could easily have been made as an exercise in grim social realism, but Bousman takes the horror movie route … with a lot of distorted images, colourful lighting effects, familiar tropes (the escapee stumbling into a handy man-trap), quivering supporting neurotic victims (Courtney Halverson, Hannah Fierman, Lindsay Seim – all of whom have been working on their genre CVs), manic liturgical chants (by Mark Sayfritz), and grotesqueries like strangulation with an umbilical cord, tongue-lopping and live buried. Hennesy goes the full Sheila Keith/Jessica Lange as the maniacal fake abbess, with an array of wimpled harpies and harridans in support – Trin Miller is especially icy as a scarfaced, model-perfect enforcer. Like most films set in evil institutions, it climaxes with riot and revolution – as tables are turned, and the bad eggs get scrambled. Perhaps overlong at 102 minutes, it’s still admirably furious about pious hypocrisy.