Mike Mendez is one of my favorite film makers, which is a labor of love considering he has only directed 3 true horror films all by himself, and I have to keep checking back on his myspace and imdb waiting for him to pump out something new. He was responsible for The Gravedancers, which was featured in the first “8 films to die for” horror festival that is still continuing on today. He also directed Killers, which was a bit of an art house/experimental horror by way of tarantino-esque crime thriller. While Gravedancers was quite a scary and tense little ghost film, and Killers was strange, surreal and interesting in its own right, his real winner, in my eyes, was a little independent horror film released in 2000 called The Convent. Mix equal part Night of the Demons 1 and 2 (reviewed by yours truly here and here) with DEMONS, an Italian zombie and demon possession movie, and you have a good foundation for gaining appreciation for what The Convent is all about. A rag tag bunch of college types go to a much hyped building that was once home to a all girl boarding school run by nun which was the stage for a mass murder by a former student via shotgun and fire, run into a bunch of goth kids looking to summon something from “below” in the same building, and we all benefit from watching the carnage that ensues. I feel compelled to defend The Convent, since it is one of my all-time favorite “I could watch this at anytime, any day and enjoy it” type films. It certainly falls into the ever fluctuating cinematic category of “so bad it’s good” or simply “bad-good” for short. The whole movie has its tongue firmly planted in its cheek, but it is also a tribute to how enjoyable something that is extolling the virtues of a particular genre and time frame of films (teens dying thanks to supernatural happenings and the mid to late 80’s) while still having merit all of its own. It survives on more than just its nostalgia. There is almost…dare I say…an art to making a flick that should be (even by the own directors admission) buried and forgotten into a lower-than-cult-level gem that I, and many others on the internet who are scattered about randomly, just can’t get enough of. That, or maybe I am just a really weird person. I’ll let you pick which choice you like better.
Besides saying that Convent is merely “fun” or “funny”, one of the best parts about it is how little time it wastes. It’s like a song with a really good chorus, in fact a great chorus, that just decided to shorten up the verses to about…10-15 seconds in length. It doesn’t make you “wait for it”, or try to build up suspense or intrigue where there is none to be had. It is just 70 some-odd minutes (not including the credits) of payoff after payoff which include nods to Lucio Fulci’s Zombie, and as I mentioned earlier, Night of the Demons and Umberto Bava’s DEMONS. The humor is definitely subjective, and the impact of many of the lines will directly correlate to how many horror films you have seen and what your idea of good humor is, but even the mis-delivery of some of the more benign lines make me chuckle during every viewing. The show stealer is certainly Megahn Perry, who gives one of the best “goth girls with all the knowledge of the spooky place the group shouldn’t be breaking into” performances in recent memory. Closely behind her is Dickie-Boy and Saul, the fumbling, embarrassingly pathetic and pretentious summoners who, by pure accident, actually succeed in turning the abandoned boarding school into a maze of zombie demons and untimely death. The wacky accents, mannerisms and behaviors they perform will make any outcast from high school watching this cringe with how close to home it hits, since we all either were or knew someone who was only a few good acting and improv classes away from being one of those two characters. Often times, pointing out the weak link or links in a low-budget horror movie is about the easiest thing to do, but The Convent actually doesn’t have anyone in it who just makes you want to go grab a drink when he or she on screen. They aren’t exactly the deepest or most empathetic cast of folks ever assembled as far as their characters go, but they don’t need to be. It would be like watching a rap video and complaining because they are objectifying women. They all serve there purpose admirably and more importantly fit the roles they are playing. It’s a win-win.
Mendez stretches the minuscule budget to give us more bang for the buck than almost any of the major studios horror contributions this decade. We get some great looking gore and fantastic kills, which flip-flop between homages to famous gore scenes (like the eye scene from Zombie) and original creations (like a the cheerleader face rip complete with zombie cheers and dance moves). We also get some really throw back style glowing green eye contacts, black-light trickery, and flourescent blood that makes for great plasma splashes and squib explosions. The directing is pretty much in observer mode, which is fine and dandy to me considering I like when a horror movie lets the action in front of us do a majority of the talking without to much in the way of distractions from flashy or overly stylish and pretentious camera work. There are some “Evil Dead” style reverse shots, especially right when the malevolent spirits arrive for the first time, but it’s quick and all in good taste and doesn’t come off as a detriment. The demons also have this crazy stutter step walk that they do, which can be played for laughs as well as creep factor, and works both ways depending on how you want to see it. The soundtrack, featuring a cover of “Dreamweaver” and “You don’t own me” works well hand in hand with the intentionally cheesy and bombastic score that only strengthens the good time vibe that runs through the whole picture. There’s a few exterior cgi scenes are laugh out loud bad, but seeing as how bad they are, I like to see them as jokes instead of budget restrictions. The editing is quick, and almost ferocious at times, as the movie speeds by at its gloriously rapid pace. I am a firm believer in the idea that only a handful of movies ever made should top a 90 minute run time, and The Convent has shown me that almost every horror film should run about 85 minutes, including the credits. There’s a lot to like here, visually and aurally, if you’re a big fan of more modern takes on proven old school formulas.
The Convent has drugs, stereotypes, demons, huge laughs (both intentional and unintentional), a likable cast of actors, Adrienne Barbeau (Swamp Thing, Escape from New York, The Fog), Bill Moseley (Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, House of 1000 corpses, The Devils Rejects), and ever a cameo from timeless rap artist COOLIO. If that isn’t enough to entice you, then I am clearly out of touch with what passes for great, shameless, unabashed, old school throwback blood and guts movies. As a sidenote, the dvd for this flick has not one, but two commentary tracks, both of which are hysterical as they basically rip their own film apart. There is also a “gore on demand” feature which gives you a random kill scene for your viewing pleasure. It’s like it was made just for me. Get possessed today.