Bloody religious iconography does the heavy lifting in this muted suspense saga from British horror maven Christopher Smith.
Nothing is more threatening to religion than a woman possessed. A woman in full possession of her own power, freedom, and mind can think for herself, can question male authority, and even create life. Women are typically the recipients of witch burnings, exorcisms, and speaking in twisted tongues; their capacity to be a vessel is both their power and their weakness. Perhaps that’s why the prickly focus of “Consecration,” a muted possession thriller set in an isolated Scottish convent, feels like such a blank slate, albeit a self-possessed one. Jena Malone brings a biting charm to her portrayal of Grace, but the story’s straightforward revelations end up feeling far too muted for the holy surroundings.
Directed and co-written (with Laurie Cook) by British horror maven Christopher Smith (“Black Death”), “Consecration” makes an artful attempt at telling a feminist revamp of a possession thriller. The minimalist story leans into the ornate Scottish Highlands surroundings, lingering in the awesome single location for much of the movie’s slick 90-minute running time. As clues to the story begin to unfold, however, as many questions are left answered as not, and the explanations are just vaguely eerie enough that one is left feeling like it doesn’t really matter. Both bloody and/or creepy thrills are few and far between, but striking images and standout performances keep it cohesive.
An eye doctor who specializes in degenerative conditions, Grace (Malone) lives a quiet life, rarely socializing outside of professional connections. Her humdrum routine is disrupted by the sudden death of her brother, a priest who had been living with an extreme religious sect in the countryside. Though his death has been ruled a murder/suicide that claimed another priest, Grace has doubts, which she wastes no time voicing to the handsome local detective (Thoren Ferguson). She begins having mysterious visions as soon as she’s on the grounds of the Mount Saviour Convent, a gorgeous granite cathedral overlooking imposing seaside cliffs. The first thing she sees pulling up: A massive stone archway leading to a steep drop over the rocks where her brother’s body was found.
“Consecration” doesn’t take itself too seriously, allowing blessed room for levity amidst the suspense. By way of introduction, the suspicious Mother Superior (Janet Suzman) tells Grace: “You don’t have to call me mother.” When Grace barges in during mealtime to ask why her brother’s body was cleaned before it could be inspected, she is told in no uncertain terms: “We live a disciplined life here and it’s lunchtime.” Father Romero (the excellent Danny Huston) is much warmer to Grace, though anyone familiar with priests in horror will know not to trust him, either. Huston imbues Romero with a wry humor, cutely quipping: “Luckily I have only two sins. Cake and coffee.”
Though a vision of her bother warns her to leave at once, Grace decides to stay at the convent while the investigation is under way. She keeps seeing things that cause her to collapse and lose consciousness, and one watery vision nearly leads to her drowning. Her wet clothes are soon replaced by the same beige muslin habit as the nuns, and she begins to blend into the scenery. The nuns remain disappointingly opaque, which seems like a missed opportunity for character development. Only one stands out: A curious young woman who keeps scurrying up behind Grace with a jarring taunt of, “Peekaboo. I see you.” Mostly, they’re relegated to background pieces until their climactic ends, blending together as they’re seen scrubbing blood-soaked floors or lingering ominously on shadowy staircases.
Grace’s backstory comes into focus via tense childhood flashbacks, which reveals a traumatic start much darker than the adult Grace lets on, or possibly even knows. A secret coded notebook left by her brother offers little explanation, though it becomes clear she was chosen and summoned by the sect, which is even possibly the reason for her brother’s death. The finale eventually delivers a few thrills, and the cream-colored habits really deliver when soaked in blood. Grace remains none the wiser as to her true purpose, even up until the very end, leaving her just as much in the dark as the audience.
There’s a vintage appeal to a good old-fashioned satanic possession thriller, and “Consecration” is reverent to a certain kind of old school horror sensibility. Still, with so much envelope-pushing genre fare out there, even a solid throwback needs to throw a new wrench in.
“Consecration” arrives in theaters on Friday, February 10 and on VOD on Friday, March 3.
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