The long and dark history of abuse by priests within the Catholic Church is known thanks to victims coming forward and invaluable local journalism that became Oscar-winning movies. Yet there are still plenty of stories and angles that aren't as familiar to the mainstream as pedophile priests. There is an equally long history of abusive nuns, who subject people to physical, emotional, and sometimes even sexual abuse.
One obscure horror movie from 2018 explored that dark subject head-on — and did so without supernatural ghosts and demons to drum up scares. St. Agatha, directed by Saw franchise veteran Darren Lynn Bousman, is the horror movie you absolutely need to stream before it leaves Netflix on August 7.
St. Agatha, released by indie house Uncork'd Entertainment, is the story of Mary (Sabrina Kern), a pregnant runaway in '50s rural America. While still mourning — and feeling guilty for — the death of her little brother, Mary is taken in by a mysterious convent ruled by Mother Superior (Carolyn Hennesy, known to Star Wars fans as the animated Leia Organa). Very quickly, Mary learns the convent is not what it seems and struggles to survive while her fellow novitiates fall victim to Superior's gaslighting and abuse.
Despite its budgetary limitations and visible rough edges, St. Agatha is a lean and mean movie that doesn't rely on usual cheap thrills found in other similarly frugal productions. Instead, it banks on the strength of a mostly unknown lead, Kern, who anchors the movie as a helpless victim unable to discern reality from delusion. It has the alluring evil of Hennesy, whose performance strikes a chord to anyone remotely familiar with emotionally abusive authority figures. As a movie from Bousman who has helmed multiple Saw movies including the upcoming Spiral, there's enough gruesome physicality to make you squirm.
But the most effective and unusual thing about St. Agatha is that it's a horror movie not because of a ghost or a demon haunting the convent — there are none, in fact— but because it reveals the evil in people. Normal, red-blooded people in positions of authority and exploit that power over those who have none. In that way, there is no better summation of the Catholic Church's worst sins, and there is no greater personification of the Church than Mother Superior.
Sporting a vivid auburn bob and a cool-as-ice composure that makes you think she could intimidate Satan himself, Hennesy's Mother Superior is the true star, and the true villain, of St. Agatha. A stage and screen veteran with 400+ episodes of General Hospital beneath her belt, Hennesy's singular presence elevates St. Agatha above its station as a forgettable budget horror. Watching her effortlessly dominate over emotionally-wrecked novitiates, talking them into cutting their tongues off, is nothing short of astonishing — and infuriating.
More than anything, St. Agatha is a fictionalized genre movie that filters true-life horror. In 2018, the same year St. Agatha was released to festivals, BuzzFeed News reported on the nuns of St. Joseph's Catholic Orphanage. In it, BuzzFeed cited other instances of abuse at other orphanages that included (but were not limited to) children forced to eat their vomit, mutilation, victims locked alive behind cabinets and attics, and forced to believe they were unwanted by loved ones. Watching St. Agatha is like watching an adaptation of these accounts of torment and trauma.
St. Agatha isn't the scariest horror movie you'll ever see. If you're in need of sheer terror at 2 a.m., YouTube clips of Hereditary or The Exorcist will do just the trick. But St. Agatha excels in its very specialized lane. A grounded survival story wrapped up in torture movie aesthetics, St. Agatha is one of the rare B-movies to thoughtfully explore church abuse from an angle hardly acknowledged by the mainstream. That St. Agatha is also a very good movie, well-acted and well-directed in a tightly-plotted 90 minutes, is all the more a church miracle.
St. Agatha is streaming now on Netflix until August 7.