Review by Jay Bowman
A horror flick set in the 17th century is refreshing, at least to me. In the past two decades, we’ve seen many attempts to base the genre’s scares on modern technology, usually with less than stellar results. By choosing to set things in the Before Internet Times, filmmaker Paul Hyett has at least assured his latest offering will stand head and shoulders above something like Unfriended, so we’re off to a good start before we even hit play.
Somewhere in England, a young woman named Persephone (Hannah Arterton) is being tried for witchcraft. As a surly magistrate (Michael Ironside) sentences her to death, the mysterious Reverend Mother (Clare Higgins) offers instead to take the damned soul to her convent so she can repent for her sins and hopefully find herself back in God’s good graces. She argues with the magistrate for a bit, accusing him of heresy before suggesting that kindling isn’t the best way to use those who have fallen off the righteous path. Can’t say I disagree with her.
However, at the convent poor Persephone learns she may have been better off burning at the stake after all. Mother Reverend rules absolutely, demanding unwavering obedience and delivering swift, horrible punishment to those who don’t oblige. Turns out she’s a pretty vile character, but if you’d watched Hellraiser back in the day you probably had that hunch. Anyway, Persephone spends her days carrying out chores, being beaten, and getting locked away in the convent’s depths, where she begins to see and feel a mysterious presence. As she tries to solve the mystery of what the hell was that, some of the nuns come down with a bizarre malady, with symptoms ranging from coughing up loads of blood to tearing one’s eyes out. Persephone struggles to convince the others to escape as Reverend Mother continues to run things as normal.
Convent manages to keep the tension high from the start. The true nature of Mother Reverend and what’s happening to those in her care gets revealed in sparse pieces that keep you hooked, even if other elements of the film don’t enthrall you. The titular convent, where most of the film takes place, doesn’t exactly pop as a set, and the choice to keep things dimly lit makes me wonder if Hyett wanted to mask some shortcoming in the set or costumes. Thankfully, the dialog is always sharp, especially Reverend Mother’s lines, so there’s always something to look forward to, even as all the gray walls start to blend together.
Persephone makes for an interesting heroine. She is, essentially, powerless against Mother Reverend. Though confident and self-assured, she spends more time being a victim than triumphing. Despite this, Arterton’s performance draws on a quiet inner strength that builds appropriately alongside growing danger without much need for exposition.
Strangely, the film is also quite conservative with its horror elements. Not that women being abused in a convent isn’t horrible, mind you, but we only get brief, jump scare glimpses of the supernatural violence for the most part, which is probably for the best. The previously mentioned scene of a nun pulling her own eyes out holds longer than it should, giving you just enough time to realize how very silly it looks. It’s not until the last twenty or so minutes of this hour and nineteen-minute film that the full horror and action are unleashed and things get frantic. It’s actually pretty fun and disorienting at times, it’s just a shame that it doesn’t feature more in the movie. I won’t ruin the reveal, but I hope you like blood.
Convent fits comfortably into established horror tropes. The religious bent and supernatural angle are all well and good, but I can’t say that the story provided makes interesting use of those themes. The creativity in setting that made Hyett’s previous film Howl such a treat isn’t present here, as Convent is ultimately a straight-forward blood-and-guts, escape-the-scary-thing movie. That said, the performances and dense atmosphere carry their weight quite well and give a strong identity to what could have otherwise been an easily overlooked movie.