Let’s not bury the glories of “The Convent” deep in the review, lost in the credits.
Production designers Maria Dagher, Tony Noble and Julian Luxton should take a bow for this beautifully conceived period piece ghost story.
And let’s not leave out art director Hattie Gent, whose color schemes bring the drab, superstitious and bloody 16th century of Britain to life, or cinematographer Neil Oseman, who paints this world in pools of darkness pierced by smoky-spooky beams of filtered sun or unfiltered moonlight.
The story may be horror-movie simple — novitiate nuns stuck in a “cursed” convent, hounded and slaughtered by…well, something. Or someone. Someones?
But makeup and prosthetic designer turned co-writer/director Paul Hyett‘s ghoulish stroll through the nasty nunnery is lifted by its detail, its grim in-your-face intimacy and very good performances.
No, legendary Canadian character actor Michael Ironside may not even attempt a British accent in his lone scene, a cameo as “The Magistrate” when sentences our heroine, “another necromancer,” to be “lashed to the stake and put to the blaze.” Everybody else picks up the slack.
And he manages the one thing his character must possess — loathsome cruelty.
Persephone, she is called. Named for the “Queen of the Underworld,” she (Hannah Arterton, yes the younger sister of Gemma Arterton) is to be burned as a witch, only to be “saved” by an outspoken, no-nonsense nun.
” I provide purpose to the fallen,” Sister Margaret (Katie Sheridan) of The Sisters of the Eucharist declares. “A penitent soul holds more value than kindling for a fire.”
Persephone and her “HEATHEN name, one that has no place here,” move in. But there’s something seriously off about this place. And not just the creepy Margaret or monstrous Mother Superior (Claire Higgins), the gloomy lighting that penetrates its cells, chapel and kitchen, day and night.
The infirmary is insanely busy. A fever? The villager Ellis (Freddy Carter), who pines for Catherine (Emily Tucker) is asking a lot of questions. All he gets is a warning from the scary Sister Margaret.
“A greater infection than their faith draws close!”
Hyett and cinematographer keep the camera even closer; tight shots for interiors, capturing the fright in close-ups and medium shots, even tighter shots outdoors (limiting how much 1659 production you have to “design” and decorate.
The dialogue has the tone of incantations — “Praise be! We have been blessed with a new soul!” “I have found only doubt between these walls!” “Must you find Perdition so…tempting?”
Yes, “There is a wretchedness here. Something lurks between these walls.” Persephone may be just the one, the “new soul” to figure out what it is.
I can’t say it was all that scary, and that’s a major shortcoming for a horror movie.
But that’s not all we drop in on these fright-fests for, is it? The effects — fiery/blurry nightmares, gathering blackness that suggests “an entity,” gore and blood and knives that draw such blood — are as good as a dimly-lit picture like this needs them to be.
And the eyes, the EYES!
Like most movies of this genre, you find yourself wishing it was better, more horrific or more despairing, maybe with a message of some sort, ANY sort.
We really only get to know Persephone, and can only fear for the other characters by type-casting — winsome, cute and cosseted young English roses, caught up in “a higher calling,” fated to be bloodied, doomed unless Persephone can figure out a way to save them.
Still, this cast gives fair value and the production team is punching WAY above its budget. Not bad.
MPAA Rating: unrated, graphic violence, blood and gore
Cast: Hannah Arterton, Katie Sheridan, Rosie Day, Clare Higgins, Dilan Gwyn, Ania Marson and Michael Ironside
Credits:Directed by Paul Hyett, script by Conel Plamer and Paul Hyett. A Vertical Entertainment release.
Running time: 1:21