Religious Horror has been a prevalent subgenre ever since 1973’s The Exorcist shocked audiences and made them genuflect at the altar of scary. The latest entry into the field, The Convent, arrives to select theaters, as well as On Demand, as of Friday, May 3rd, 2019, via Vertical Entertainment.
In 17th century England, in the wake of a family tragedy, an orphaned young woman named Persephone (Hannah Arterton: The Five mini-series, Safe series) is accused of necromancy and scheduled to be burned at the stake for witchcraft. Fortunately, at the last minute she is offered sanctuary at a convent in the woods run by a mysterious Reverend Mother (Clare Higgins: Hellraiser 1987, The Libertine 2004) intent upon offering redemption to young souls.
Here, a group of nuns — Anna Francis (Sarah Malin: EastEnders series, Doctor Strange 2016); Bernadine (Bethan Walker: Torchwood series, Final Fantasy XIV: Stormblood video game 2017); Lucilla (Sian Breckin: Donkey Punch 2008, Tyrannosaur 2011); Lillith (Ayvianna Snow: Retribution 2017, Corvid’s Head 2019); Constance (Eva Morgan: Knight of the Dead 2013); and Margaret (Katie Sheridan: Genie in the House series, Together 2018) — all live in seclusion and serve the Reverend Mother and the Lord.
Entrusted to the nuns’ care are three young women who, much like Persephone, have been rescued and brought to the priory to repent and seek salvation. Catherine (Emily Tucker: Lady Macbeth short 2017, Meet the Nativity mini-series 2017), Adela (Amelia Bennett: Where the Skin Lies 2017, The Secret 2018), and Emeline (Rosie Day: All Roads Lead to Rome 2015, Outlander series) each welcome their new ‘sister,’ but it’s immediately clear that the rules are quite strict and there is no fraternizing allowed.
Already on edge in her new surroundings, Persephone soon realizes that all is not rosary beads and Bibles at the priory. A fever is making its way through the stone walls, and several of the sisters have fallen ill. Add to this a wretchedness that lurks within the convent’s stone walls, as well as an ominous promise from a black-clad stranger in the woods. As the tension mounts, Persephone will have to decide if her life is truly safe within the walls of the Reverend Mother’s refuge.
The Convent clocks in at 81 minutes, was directed by Paul Hyett (Howl 2015, Peripheral 2018), and written by Hyett with Conal Palmer (The Seasoning House 2012) and Gregory Blair (Deadly Revisions 2013, Garden Party Massacre 2017). It also features the acting talents of Ania Marson (Nicholas and Alexandra 1971, Emma 1972); Freddy Carter (Wonder Woman 2017, Free Rein series); and Michael Ironside (Total Recall 1990, Starship Troopers 1997).
Billed as a blend of Horror and Historical Fiction, The Convent — which is also known under the titles Heretiks and the Polish Herezja — is both of these things but it fits best into the Religious Horror subgenre. As the story is intended to be set in the late 1600s, yes, there is a historical element at work here, however, it is not the most important element of the story but merely a setting. Instead, this tale is a bizarre blend of 2019’s St. Agatha and any of the endless ‘conjuring gone awry’ flicks available. In short, you can expect nuns, malevolence, blood, and a priory with some serious supernatural problems!
While The Convent is somewhat enjoyable to watch, it is unfortunately mired with so many issues that it can never fully attain what it sets out to achieve — which appears to be a steady building of tension and a bloody finale. Perhaps the film’s basest issue is its script, which shows promise but is too scattered to be fully effective. Inside these walls there are a bevy of mysterious nuns, ‘fallen’ young women, beatings, plucked out eyeballs galore, a conjuring, a malevolent spirit, and a veritable host of Horror cliches. Something needs to be pared down here — and someone needs to keep their eyeballs!
Similarly, what’s meant to disturb you throughout the film is fairly predictable. There’s an obvious desire here to add extraneous gore, which is fine, but some of the scenes end up ridiculous because of this choice. When one of the sisters plucks out her own eyeballs and we get to see the peepers, it’s actually laughable — clearly not the reaction that was intended. The positive? There is one truly spine-tingling scene and a solid jump-scare, but that’s about all you can expect from The Convent by way of thrills and chills — and they both happen early on.
By the time the film reaches its third act, the plot has given way to ridiculousness and cliches that detract from any tension or suspense that was built earlier. Which is super unfortunate, as The Convent shows possibility. Its actors — particularly Arterton (Persephone), Higgins (Reverend Mother), and Tucker (Catherine) — do their roles justice. While they are not given the most well-rounded of characters to work with, each of the ladies injects a finesse into her role that allows the entire production to stay afloat.
So, while The Convent starts out reasonably solid and builds to a point, it then begins to devolve as it moves into its third act before it ultimately falls apart. If cheesy lines worthy of a CSI: Miami episode are your thing, sure, you might love the grand finale and its severed CGI heads. For the rest of us, The Convent ends without the bang that was necessary to make it as impactful as it might have been otherwise. Still, all of this said, it’s not the worst entry into the Religious Horror field and it certainly has its moments. For these reasons, Cryptic Rock give The Convent 3 of 5 stars.