Sometimes, filmmakers look to use horror as a means to make us confront the things that we fear in society and in ourselves. Other times, they just want to throw some blood and scares at us to see if they can make us squirm. It only takes a few minutes of Paul Hyett’s The Convent to realize that he’s going for the latter, and that doesn’t necessarily have to be a bad thing.
The titular convent is a 17th century home to an order of nuns, where lost soul Persephone (Hannah Arterton) has landed after narrowly escaping being burned as a witch. Her savior, the Reverend Mother (Clare Higgins), convinces the local magistrate (Michael Ironside, in a bit part that didn’t even demand he put on an accent) that she can redeem Persephone’s soul if given the chance. But Persephone soon learns that the road to redemption in this house is paved with emotional and physical abuse. To make matters worse, it appears that she is the only one who can see the malevolent being hiding in the shadows.
Most of the plot and performances really just seem like a means to set up the visual mayhem to follow, which isn’t terribly surprising given Hyett’s résumé as a makeup and special effects guy for films including The Descent and Doomsday. That’s not to say character work is bad, but rather it’s just kind of there. As Persephone, Arterton seems to be going through the usual paces for this kind of movie: avoiding the wrath of the sisters, trying to build relationships with her fellow wayward girls, and harboring guilt from a Haunted Past™.
The supporting cast is similarly obligatory. Ellis (Freddy Carter), a well-meaning tradesman who visits the order from time to time, wants to help the girls, but seems to usually wind up just getting them into trouble. And Catherine (Emily Tucker) is one of the few people with whom Persephone develops a kinship, which of course means she’s doomed from the get-go. A standout, however, is the great Clare Higgins as the Reverend Mother. We haven’t gotten to see her nearly enough since her iconic turn as Julia Cotton in Hellraiser and Hellbound: Hellraiser II, so it’s a treat to see that she can still chill your blood with just a well-placed icy stare.
Ultimately, though, Hyett’s best stuff comes from his technical work. Cheers to whoever scouted the primary location, as they found a structure with a solid, authentic feel to it. Low-budget films often run the risk of trying to “spookify” a set and just wind up having it look cheap. The rooms here, in particular the cellar chapel, have a naturally foreboding look that utilize cross-shaped windows for a creepy lighting effect.
And, of course, Hyett’s makeup expertise plays heavily both in the creature design and the splatter effects. I’m a sucker for a demon possession aesthetic, and the black veins and glowing eyes from our baddie provide an appropriately corrupted look. And these demons aren’t just playing mind games with people. Blood flows freely and often with eyes gouged out, messy stabbings aplenty, and even some good old-fashioned flesh chewing. As is the case with a lot of low-budget movies, there was a bit more reliance on CGI blood than I’d have liked, but it didn’t get too out of hand.
In the end, I doubt The Convent will change the way you look at horror, but I don’t think anyone involved is trying to sell it as such. Hyett introduces his lambs, leads them to the slaughter, and calls it a day. There are certainly worse sins in the world to atone for than that.
Movie Score: 2.5/5