By James Lindorf
It has been 115 years since the first horror movie was filmed in France. In all those years, one of the genre’s constant companions has been religion. “The Wicker Man,” “The Omen,” “Rosemary’s Baby,” and of course “The Exorcist” are some of horror’s most well-known films. The latest entry into this subgenre, “Agnes,” just had its world premiere at the prestigious Tribeca Film Festival. At a remote convent, sister Agnes (Hayley McFarland) has begun acting strangely. As her behavior becomes more disturbing by the day, rumors of demonic possession begin to spread. To investigate the claims, the church sends in a priest-in-waiting (Jake Horowitz) and his disillusioned mentor (Ben Hall), who has a history of performing exorcisms. When the usual methods of expelling a demon fail, it leaves a trail of terror and trauma in its wake.
Convents have not been the most common setting for a horror movie. While the initial location may be unique in most respects, “Agnes” begins with a fairly traditional setup. Cursing, thrashing, speaking in tongues, violent outbursts, Anges does it all. Coming up with a new way to show a possession may be the most challenging job in horror. “The Exorcist”‘ is iconic and did so many things well that every movie in the last 48 years has been compared to it. Something that isn’t going to stop for many years to come. Instead of trying to live up to that comparison for 93 minutes Reece and Selvidge decide to imbue their story with moments of humor before breaking from those Regan comparisons by showing Agnes having genuine caring and tender moments with Sister Mary (Molly C. Quinn, Castle).
What first appears to be a boilerplate horror story shifts into a story about grief and isolation with Mary at its center. After a personal tragedy, Mary fled from her former life and entered the convent. After the events with Agnes, she again fled, looking for a quiet and simple life. With this new focus gone are the traditional horror elements and the dark comedic moments. In its place is a gritty morose story of lost faith, grief, and struggle. Mary is working a low-income job with a lecherous boss (Chris Sullivan, This is Us) and struggling to pay her rent, which dramatically increased. Suffering through her loss, what happened to Agnes, and where her life has ended up, Mary has begun to question her faith. She tries to distract herself by becoming involved with a down on his luck comedian (Sean Gunn, Guardians of the Galaxy). But just like they had to confront the demon, Molly will have to face her faith and figure out how she can move forward.
“Agnes” is a movie of two halves. The first is a darkly comedic take on religious horror films of the past. An idea that has tons of merit and potential, with most horror comedies ignoring religion or only touching on it briefly. Reece could have a “Tucker and Dale vs. Evil” level success on his hands if that idea had been extended to a feature-length project. In the second half of the film, “Agnes” becomes an intense emotional drama in the vein of “Manchester by the Sea.” Clearly, with the sole focus, the second half of “Agnes” had the potential to be a low-budget film that becomes a megahit. As currently constructed, the two incomplete stories are better at provoking exciting thoughts and discussions than telling satisfying stories. There is no question that Agnes is artistic. The question that needs to be asked is if it is entertaining enough to keep the audience’s attention long enough to appreciate the art. Unfortunately, for most audiences, the answer will be no, and they will be frustrated with the sudden shift in focus. Each half fully realized could have been its own 4 out of 5 movie. Unfortunately, we are given two halves that don’t make a whole, and the result is not greater than the sum of its parts. For that reason, I have to give “Agnes” a 3 out of 5. Agnes will find its audience, but it won’t be a crowded room.
Director: Mickey Reece
Written By: John Selvidge and Mickey Reece
Producers: Jensine Carr, Molly Quinn, Elan Gale, Jacob Snovel, and Matthew Welty
Executive Producers: Molly Quinn, Elan Gale, Matthew Welty, Adam Hendricks, Greg Gilreath, Zac Locke
Cast: Molly Quinn, Jake Horowitz, Sean Gunn, Chris Browning, Ben Hall, Mary Buss, Chris Sullivan
Cinematographer: Samuel Calvin
Composer: Nicholas Poss
Editor: Mickey Reece
Run Time: 93 minutes
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