Horror isn’t always machete-wielding maniacs or monsters or houses haunted by demons and ghosts. Sometimes it’s just two people in a room, one determined to hurt and humiliate the other. That’s the horror of Poor Agnes, director Navin Ramaswaran’s Canadian indie about the relationship that develops between a serial killer and her potential next victim.

Lora Burke gives a revelatory performance as Agnes, a single woman living out in the middle of nowhere with a predilection for murder. Mike, a private investigator, comes to the house half-heartedly checking into a missing persons case; before long, Agnes seduces him, has sex with him, and then abducts him, holding him prisoner and torturing him both physically and psychologically in an effort to completely break him down. The longer she keeps him in the house, the more their relationship begins to twist into something even more twisted and dark, put to the test even further by the arrival of a third man, a shy IT employee (Will Conlon) who begins dating Agnes.

After years of seeing horror movies in which women are victimized at the hands of cruel, psychotic men, Poor Agnes reverses the power dynamic for an exploration of the relationship between captor and captive—a variation on Stockholm syndrome informed by gender politics. Mike isn’t just broken down because he’s the abductee; he is broken down because his agency—and, by extension, his masculinity – has been stripped away. That he’s tortured and starved is only part of his victimization. It’s in the way that he first loses his masculinity, and eventually his basic humanity, that makes Mike so malleable, able to be reformed in Agnes’ hands. See, it’s not just about killing for Agnes. She’s a predator who enjoys playing with her food.

By way of the star-making performance by Burke, Agnes becomes the smartest, most powerful, most unpredictable character in any room in which she stands. She is cruel and sadistic, given to her basest appetites, and totally unapologetic about who she is and what she does. While we recognize that she is a psychotic, there is something utterly magnetic about the way she speaks, the way she moves, the philosophy she spouts. We want to listen to her. We want to follow this character. And when Mike begins to want to listen to her and follow her, it makes a kind of sense.

Burke’s performance and the bizarrely evolving relationship between her and her captive make Poor Agnes a fascinating take on the serial killer drama. It’s a bit like Misery for 2017, only this time the Annie Wilkes character isn’t defined by her feelings about a man. This time, Annie Wilkes is the twisted sun around which everyone and everything else revolves. We are no longer imprisoned because she has hobbled our ankles. We are imprisoned because she has convinced us that it’s what we deserve. We want to be there. And, in this way, Agnes has won.

Movie Score: 3/5

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Patrick Bromley
About the Author - Patrick Bromley

Patrick lives in Chicago, where he has been writing about film since 2004. A member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Online Film Critics Society, Patrick's writing also appears on About.com, DVDVerdict.com and fthismovie.net, the site he runs and hosts a weekly podcast.

He has been an obsessive fan of horror and genre films his entire life, watching, re-watching and studying everything from the Universal Monsters of the '30s and '40s to the modern explosion of indie horror. Some of his favorites include Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde (1931), Dawn of the Dead (1978), John Carpenter's The Thing and The Funhouse. He is a lover of Tobe Hooper and his favorite Halloween film is part 4. He knows how you feel about that. He has a great wife and two cool kids, who he hopes to raise as horror nerds.