Monday, October 29, 2018

Welcome to Mercy: Nunsploitation and Head Trips, Latvian-Style

Usually in horror movies, the Catholic Church is our last, best refuge from demonic evil. However, nuns and their convents are a glaring exception. From Mother Joan of the Angels to The Devil’s Doorway, bad things always seem to happen in nunneries. Perhaps this Latvian convent is the exception. Maybe it really can help an American woman displaying signs of the stigmata or perhaps the sisters will lead her further astray. There is a good chance it is too late for her regardless in Tommy Bertelsen’s Welcome to Mercy (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Madeline has returned to her parents’ rustic Latvian home, because she learned her ailing father could slip away at any second. However, her estranged mother is less than thrilled she made the effort. Reluctantly, she lets Madeline and her granddaughter Willow in out of the blustery Baltic cold. Rather embarrassingly, her standoffishness is vindicated when Madeline starts having violent fits.

To protect Willow, whom Madeline nearly throttled, Father Joseph recommends she remand herself over to the Sisters of Merciful Mercy. Evidently. They are experts when it comes to authenticating stigmata phenomenon. Unfortunately, the Mother Superior quickly concludes Madeline is not experiencing stigmata. Instead, it is a manifestation of her own trauma, which Madeline will have to face, whether she likes it or not.

Despite all the trappings of religious horror, Mercy segues into a mind-tripping movie when Madeline tumbles down the rabbit hole of her own subconscious. Soon, she is flashing forwards and backwards. Her perception is decidedly unreliable, but most of the nuns behave in a glaringly suspicious manner, so it is tricky to form any hard and fast judgements.

Bertelsen and screenwriter Kristen Ruhlin upend reality so many times, viewers will completely lose their bearings. For a while, it is cool to watch a film go for broke over and over again, but eventually Mercy reaches a point where it becomes clear they did not have enough bread crumbs to lead them out of the forest and had no idea how to end it all.

Still, there is no denying the film’s sinister atmosphere or the darkly surreal imagery summoned up during Madeline’s bad trips. Mercy is totally intense throughout the second act and most of the third, but there is no punctuation mark to go at the end. Nevertheless, Ruhlin is totally convincing as the freaked out and profoundly alienated Madeline. Watching her get dragged through one Hell after another is absolutely harrowing.

As Father Joseph, Latvian theater legend Juris Strenga is also all kinds of weird, but in a way that is hard to pin down (besides his crazy hair). However, Lily Newmark (from Pin Cushion) eventually steals the film as August, the friendly young novice nun—with a secret.

This is a well-crafted film that is admittedly quite effective in the moment, but the abrupt and untidy conclusion does not pay-off on viewers’ considerable investment in the preceding madness. It is better than most lazy exercises in low budget horror, but Don’t Go with Stephen Dorff is much more successful at blowing apart and then magically re-assembling reality. Basically, Mercy is a lot like Sister Act, but it is less blatantly the instrument of Satan’s will.  Recommended for hardcore fans of psychological and nunsploitation horror, Welcome to Mercy opens this Friday (11/2) in New York, at the IFC Center.