By Alexandra Heller-Nicholas.
Agnes shrewdly balances sincerity with the filmmaker’s signature style of camp once again to extraordinary effect.”
I’m not even three minutes into the international premiere of Agnes at Montreal’s Fantasia Fest and I almost had to be physically restrained from hugging the screen. All the things I love were here virtually immediately: close-ups of a delicious cake! A mad nun screaming abuse at other nuns, calling them “whores” and “cocksuckers” as a teacup floats supernaturally mid-air! If there are other elements to great cinema, as the dark, perverse god of this film is my witness, at this very moment in time I sure as hell couldn’t imagine what they might be.
Welcome to the world of Mickey Reece – where heightened camp is fine art, straddling the delicate line that distinguishes the highbrow and lowbrow with all the precision, determination and slightly unhinged nature of a tightrope walker. I first discovered Reece’s work in 2018 at a screening at Austin’s Fantastic Fest with his film Strike, Dear Mistress, and Cure His Heart. With the film described in that festival’s program as “a wholly wackadoo psychodrama inspired in part by both Ingmar Bergman’s Autumn Sonata and The Velvet Underground’s ‘Venus in Furs’”, there was clearly no way to resist such a description, and Reece’s own story as filmmaker only added to its seemingly magnetic lure. Reece’s oft described as the so-called “Soderbergh of the Sticks”, and Strike, Dear Mistress, and Cure His Heart was hardly his debut film, but it was still a dazzling breakthrough; the Oklahoma-based low-budget filmmaker had already made twenty (yes, twenty) films by the time this film hit the genre festival circuit. And from there, the dizzying charm and total originality of his work hit like a wave, leading to the much more widely distributed – and acclaimed – follow up, 2019’s Climate of the Hunter, a sort-of vampire film and sort-of love triangle that was, less ambiguously, just straight-up fabulous.
It’s hard to reductively describe the general vibe of Reece’s films, but once again Agnes suggests that if Douglas Sirk and Rainer Werner Fassbinder hung out in contemporary small-town America, these are the kinds of films I can imagine them making.”
Agnes marks the third part of a loose trilogy alongside Strike, Dear Mistress, and Cure His Heart and Climate of the Hunter, and despite its less overtly baroque title, it is no less audacious, no less captivating and no less brilliant, than the two films that preceded it. It’s hard to reductively describe the general vibe of Reece’s films, but once again Agnes suggests that if Douglas Sirk and Rainer Werner Fassbinder hung out in contemporary small-town America, these are the kinds of films I can imagine them making. Agnes may stand in the shadow of Paul Verhoeven’s much more hyped fellow 2021 nunspoloitation film Benedetta, but despite that filmmaker’s unquestionable talents, one wonders how he’ll trump Reece’s much more low-key (and lower-budget) efforts – yes, it’s that good.
The film begins with all the blasphemous pomp and trashy splendour that lies at the intersection between the exorcism film and classic nunsploitation. After Agnes lets loose with her barrage of swears at the dinner table at the Carmelite convent of Saint Terese, two priests – a young one and an older (sound familiar, Exorcist fans?) – are sent to deal with the situation by their parish elders. But if it’s Father Damien and Father Merrin you are waiting for, hold onto your habit; here, instead, we have Father Donaghue (Ben Hall), the older priest who has recently been discredited for sexual impropriety, and the younger not-quite-yet-a-priest, Benjamin, one of Father Donaghue’s star students who has passed all of the necessary requirements to become a priest but has yet to be ordained. Once they arrive at the convent, the handsome young Benjamin (played by Jake Horowitz, who recently dazzled in The Vast of Night) and Father Donaghue send more than one of the nun’s hearts aflutter, particularly that of Sister Honey (Zandy Hartig), who can barely contain her desire.
As Benjamin and the somewhat cynical Father Donaghue discover almost instantly, however, Agnes’s case is far beyond what the older priest has ever witnessed before; played a wild-haired Hayley McFarland, she appears to be having the time of her life as the unhinged nun, like a refugee extra from Marat/Sade who has found herself in an eponymously named feature film. But it is a seemingly smaller character, Mary (Molly C. Quinn) who steals the show; while the first part of the film moves with a kind of gleeful hysteria through a consciously parodic display of the exorcism trope, by shifting his focus to Mary, Reece upends all the expectations and assumptions about this film that its opening so determinedly establishes. As a witness to Agnes’s (possible) possession and the attempted exorcism, Mary is forced to look at her own life and makes major changes.
Where the film takes us then is altogether unexpected, climaxing in an extraordinary conversation between Mary and Benjamin where all the campness and eye-winking delights of the film that preceded it come crashing down, replaced by a philosophical discussion about theology, faith and life in general that is genuinely sincere, profound and thoroughly moving. Yet another example of the wholly unique splendour of the films of Mickey Reece, Agnes shrewdly balances sincerity with the filmmaker’s signature style of camp once again to extraordinary effect.
Alexandra Heller-Nicholas is a film critic from Melbourne, Australia, who has published widely on cult, horror and exploitation film including The Giallo Canvas: Art, Excess and Horror Cinema (McFarland, 2021), Rape-Revenge Films: A Critical Study (McFarland, 2011) and the 2021 updated second edition of the same name, Found Footage Horror Films: Fear and the Appearance of Reality (McFarland, 2015), the single-film focused monographs Suspiria (Auteur, 2016), Ms. 45 (Columbia University Press, 2017) and The Hitcher (Arrow Books, 2018), and two Bram Stoker Award nominated books, Masks in Horror Cinema: Eyes Without Faces (University of Wales Press, 2019) and 1000 Women in Horror (BearManor Media, 2020). She is also the co-editor, with Dean Brandum, of ReFocus: the Films of Elaine May (Edinburgh University Press, 2019), Wonderland (Thames & Hudson, 2018) on Alice in Wonderland in film, co-edited with Emma McRae, and Strickland: The Analogues of Peter Strickland (2020) and Cattet & Forzani: The Strange Films of Cattet & Forzani (2018), both co-edited with John Edmond and published by the Queensland Film Festival. Alexandra is on the advisory board of the Miskatonic Institute of Horror Studies, and a member of the Alliance of Women Film Journalists.