“Agnes” begins as a droll but otherwise conventional troubled-priest-brought-in-for-an-exorcism thriller, a darkly comic take on Catholicism, demonic possession in the age of psychobabble and “the shame of the Church,” and we all know what THAT is.
But the fourth feature of director and co-writer Mickey Reece (“Climate of the Hunter,” “Strike, Dear Mistress, and Cure His Heart”) takes an interesting, unpredictable turn at its midpoint. “Agnes” leaves its title character behind and follows a nun who leaves the order, traumatized by what she’s seen.
I can’t say it necessarily comes off, although I’m not out-of-line declaring that it doesn’t pay off — not in a horror movie or crisis-of-faith melodrama sense.
When your cynical, comical “horror” movie dips into dull standup comedy, working class poverty, the grief associated with loss and the Big Theological Question of how you make room for God in your heart, you’ve raised the bar. Although he’s made something provocative and unpredictable, I don’t think Reece crosses that higher bar.
The Sisters of Santa Teresa have a problem. One of their order has snapped, or been possessed by the Devil. Hard to say.
A mid-meal freak out — “You are all WHORES of Christ!” — rattles the pious, no-nonsense Mother Superior (Reece favorite Mary Buss) and scares the bejesus out of the other nuns, none more than Sister Mary (Molly C. Quinn), Agnes’ closest friend in the convent.
A weathered, tippling and skeptical priest (Ted Hall) with a shadow over his career is summoned to see the silent, Halloween-costumed Archbishop. Father Donahue is sent on this mission by the smirking attendant priests of the dioceses. He’s to be accompanied by his former student, seminarian Benjamin (Jake Horowitz).
Father Donahue doesn’t believe in “the Medieval ‘woo-woo'” that those minions of the Archbishop have sent him to perform. He doesn’t believe Benjamin, who hasn’t taken his vows, has any business staying with him at a convent, a “young unordained rooster loose in the hen house” is how he describes the kid to the Mother Superior. She doesn’t find that funny.
But the amateur shrink in him tells him these rituals help.
“Some people need to walk through darkness to get to the light.”
Agnes is violent, and objects are tumbling off shelves in her presence. Maybe the priest needs a stronger belief in the “Medieval woo-woo.” Instead, he summons a more punk rock TV-friendly priest with a traveling female companion, played by Chris Browning of TV’s “Bosch,” doing his best Billy Bob Thornton impersonation here.
We see things we’ve seen in scores of exorcism movies before, and as we’ve seen it all before, Reece keeps that sequence truncated. He’s more interested in “after the exorcism.”
The former Sister Mary’s odyssey takes her back into the “real world,” with no living wage, a creepy supermarket boss and a seemingly random encounter with a seriously unfunny (poorly scripted material) stand-up (Sean Gunn), a bit of morose soul-searching and some disturbing “signs” in her psyche that she might recognize.
The lighter touches outside of the comedy club are what stick with you in “Agnes.” Even the exorcism itself is made comical, with Agnes talking about Hell and smirking Father Black (Browning) suggesting he’s been there. Demonic Agnes doesn’t want to hear it.
“Hell wouldn’t HAVE you!”
And there’s an amusing priest’s analogy of life, theology and belief being like a crummy club sandwich.
“Most of this sandwich, most of this world, is just stuff to chew through, hoping that it ends soon.”
Deep. Or like “Agnes” itself, just a callow facsimile of deep — “horror movie” deep.
Rating: unrated, violence, sexuality, profanity
Cast: Molly C. Quinn, Haley McFarland, Ted Hall, Sean Gunn, Chris Browning and Jake Horowitz.
Credits: Directed by Mickey Reece, scripted by Mickey Reece and John Selvidge. A Magnet release.
Running time: 1:36