Sunday, August 08, 2021

Fantasia ’21: Agnes

It is now Pope Francis’s Church. The conservatives are out and so are their old school practices. So, what happens when a demon needs exorcising? In this case, they call in a semi-disgraced old priest. He doesn’t really believe either, but he thinks the form of the ritual still holds value. However, he hasn’t yet met the possessed title nun in Mickey Reece’s Agnes, which screens as an on-demand selection of the 2021 Fantasia International Film Festival.

Sister Agnes is cloistered in a highly traditional and secluded convent. Nevertheless, the Devil still found her there. She exhibits all the classic signs of possession, so the stern Mother Superior is forced to request help from the Archdiocese. Much to her annoyance, it arrives in the persons of the rakish Father Donaghue and his young protégé, Benjamin, a Deacon, who will soon take his vows as a priest.

Father Donaghue does his thing, assuming the ritual will give Sister Agnes the psychological or emotional relief she needs. Unfortunately, this case will be a considerably more difficult—and more real. Yet, the possession is only half the story. Equal time will be given to the aftermath, as Sister Agnes’ closest friend, the former Sister Mary, navigates civilian life after losing faith and leaving the convent.

Initially, the second half feels like a punishingly long and drawn-out epilogue, but Reece eventually pays if off with a quiet but really well-written explanation of faith from the newly ordained Father Benjamin. There is a lot to slog through, but the light-bulb moment redeems it. Plus, the demonic horror stuff is pretty creepy.

Reece has a weird, off-kilter style all his own. His eccentric rhythms and cadences suggest an unholy union of 1970s art-house cinema and questionably dubbed Euro-horror movies, but somehow it seems to work for him. Ben Hall and his radio announcer voice are a perfect match for Reece. Like in
Climate of the Hunter, Hall is an intriguing and unpredictable presence as Father Donaghue—so much so, we would like to see him leading other horror films, helmed by other directors.

Chris Browning also adds some distinct saltiness as Father Black, a defrocked rebel exorcist. Frankly, Mary Buss’s Mother Superior is a rather tiresome Catholic cliché, but it is Jake Horowitz who will really surprise viewers, stepping up and delivering in the final scene, as young but tested Father Benjamin.

Reece tries something different in
Agnes, but the balance is somewhat off. It also would be nice to someday see a film about Catholic priests that did not feel compelled to re-litigate recent Church scandals. At least Agnes does so in a way that is not so smugly moralizing. Nevertheless, for fans of demonic possession horror, Agnes is probably worth seeing, because it really is something a little different. Recommended for those with a taste for the idiosyncratic in horror, Agnes screens as an on-demand selection of this year’s Fantasia.