Even though he cut his teeth — so to speak — directing “Saw” sequels, Darren Lynn Bousman isn’t really a mainstream horror filmmaker. In the likes of his “Repo! The Genetic Opera” and “Allelulia! The Devil’s Carnival” Bousman’s fused comedy, music, gross-outs, social satire, and a theatricality bordering on camp.
The heightened psychological thriller “St. Agatha” (credited to four screenwriters) is one of Bousman’s more straightforward pictures; and yet it’s still pretty gonzo. Calling back to the ’60s and ’70s “psycho biddy” and “nunsploitation” sub-genres, the film frequently goes gleefully over-the-top in its depiction of cruel religious leaders and their paranoid flock.
Sabrina Kern plays Mary, a desperate young pregnant woman in conservative 1950s Georgia, who checks herself into a convent’s home for unwed mothers. There she becomes a special project for the Mother Superior (played by Carolyn Hennessy), who physically and mentally tortures her, starting with insisting she change her name to “Agatha.”
“St. Agatha” is a bit of a mess, structurally. It’s overlong, with flashback sequences that are well-crafted but too digressive. But Kern and Hennessy are always incredibly entertaining, going toe-to-toe, as Mary defies the convent’s rules and a smiling Mother Superior makes her pay.
Much of the movie just seems designed to make audiences collectively cringe. But “St. Agatha” makes a point about how authoritarians coerce compliance. This is a bold, broad portrait of a secret society, left alone by the government to rule their own roost by fear.
Running time: 1 hour, 42 minutes
Playing: Starts Feb. 8, Laemmle Music Hall, Beverly Hills; also on VOD
Some of horror’s most memorable movies happened because the filmmakers had access to a great location: like a shopping mall or an abandoned hospital. In the case of Matthew and Tori Butler-Hart’s supernatural thriller “The Isle,” it was the remote Scottish island of Eilean Shona.
Co-written and co-produced by the married Butler-Harts — and directed by Matthew — “The Isle” follows the plight of three mid-19th century shipwrecked sailors, who make their way to a tiny island, cloaked in mist. There they meet the four residents: the gregarious Fingal (Dickon Tyrrell), the standoffish Douglas (Conleth Hill), his niece Lanthe (Tori Butler-Hart), and the roving madwoman, Korrigan (Alex Wilton Regan).
The three seamen (played by Alex Hassell, Graham Butler and Fisayo Akinade) quickly realize the islanders won’t make it easy for them to leave. There are no boats to ferry them home; and a mysterious wailing appears whenever they even think about escaping.
“The Isle” isn’t especially scary. It’s more of an adventure/mystery, as the heroes keep pressing their hosts — at the risk of their own lives — for more information about where they are, and about what happened to the people who used to lived there.
But the picture’s a pleasure to watch throughout, largely because of Eilean Shona. The Butler-Harts built their story around the place, and don’t squander any of the spectacular scenery. This island looks like something from a dark fairy tale — so that’s exactly what the filmmakers have made.
Running time: 1 hour, 36 minutes
Playing: Starts Feb. 8, Laemmle Glendale, Glendale; also on VOD
‘The Amityville Murders’
Ever since the Long Island haunted house story “The Amityville Horror” inspired a surprise hit book and movie in the late 1970s, filmmakers and horror writers haven’t been able to stay away from that one allegedly evil Dutch Colonial. Writer-director Daniel Farrands’ “The Amityville Murders” is the latest to drop by 112 Ocean Avenue, dramatizing the location’s only clearly substantiated act of extreme violence: the night in 1974 when 23-year-old Ronald “Butch” DeFeo Jr. murdered his parents and four siblings.
The DeFeos’ story has been told on film before, with the names changed, in 1982’s “Amityville II: The Possession.” Farrands — who’s made several well-regarded documentaries about true crime and horror cinema — doesn’t try much new with his version. This is still just an “Amityville” movie, peppered liberally with spooky unexplained phenomena and ghostly voices coaxing strange behavior.
Frankly, “The Amityville Murders” feels like a missed opportunity. The film has a sense of purpose whenever it focuses on the preexisting dysfunction in the DeFeo household, suggesting that abusive parents can be scarier — and ultimately more dangerous — than any extra-dimensional demon.
But too much of this movie consists of chintzy recreations of an Italian-American New Jersey family circa 1974. The picture is filled with exaggerated accents, clumsy overdubbing, fake classic rock, and whatever ‘70s-signifiying TV clips and product labels the lawyers could clear. The effect is like watching a bar band do a cover version of “The Amityville Horror” — spirited enough, but hardly ready for the big time.
‘The Amityville Murders’
Running time: 1 hour, 37 minutes
Playing: Starts Feb. 8, Arena Cinelounge, Hollywood; also on VOD
‘A Violent Man’
Writer-director Matthew Berkowitz’s crime drama “A Violent Man” has all the pungent cynicism of a classic film noir but lacks the urgency. A slower-than-necessary pace drags on a movie that’s otherwise well-written and well-acted, and which makes good use of its setting in the world of mixed martial arts.
Former NFL running back Thomas Q. Jones stars as Ty Matthews, an MMA unknown who’s starting to make something of himself, with the loving support of his trainer/manager Pete (Isaach de Bankolé) and his girlfriend Whitney (Khalilah Joi). Then one day the high-powered promoter Benjamin Green (Bruce Davison) walks into the gym offering a spur-of-the-moment sparring session with champ Marco Reign (Chuck Liddell), changing Ty’s life forever.
What starts as a “Rocky”-like underdog sports saga takes a dark turn when a reporter (played by Denise Richards) turns up dead after an evening of rough sex with a drunken Ty. The hero’s life suddenly gets very intense. As his professional life heats up, his personal life hits the skids, and the cops start closing in.
Given all the subplots in “A Violent Man,” it’s a shame Berkowitz couldn’t make the picture any punchier. This is the kind of story that should be as terrifyingly kinetic as a freight train, barreling toward a rickety bridge.
Still, the movie is refreshingly detailed about the pressures and presumptions faced by struggling fighters, who’ll do anything to catch a break. It has a strong sense of fatalism, understanding that some men are KO’d before they ever step into a ring.
‘A Violent Man’
Running time: 1 hour, 46 minutes
Playing: Starts Feb. 8, AMC Universal CityWalk