The dividing line between saint and sinner is intentionally muddled in Consecration, director Christopher Smith’s latest Shudder-premiering horror effort following 2020’s The Banishing. Co-written by Smith and Laurie Cook, the film utilizes run-of-the-mill Catholic possession imagery and unoriginal plot points to convey a hackneyed idea about healing from buried traumas. Though it does hint at the toxicity and conspiratorial nature of a powerful institution, it never finds root in overt observations. It handles too many threads—childhood tragedy, murder cover-ups, clandestine spiritual rites—without the dexterity to effectively weave them together.
Jena Malone plays the blandly sacred-sounding Grace, a young woman who receives dreadful news about her clergyman brother’s passing at the Mount Savior Convent in Scotland. Police believe his death was part of a grim murder-suicide: After killing a fellow priest, he threw himself off of surrounding cliffs and into the rough waters of the Atlantic. Of course, Grace finds this development impossible to believe, and the convent’s oddball Mother Superior (Janet Suzman) doesn’t blame her. She tells Grace that her brother actually died from a demonic possession that he valiantly fought to overcome. Yet something still feels fishy about the entire congregation, particularly when Grace begins to experience intense visions about The Knights of the Morning Star, the original 12th century inhabitants of the grounds who settled there shortly after the crusades. The land’s blood-soaked history feels strongly connected to its present-day religious affiliation, and Vatican visitor Father Romero (Danny Huston) arrives on site to ostensibly cleanse the convent from the oppressive feeling of evil that envelops it.
Beyond its effective script full of half-developed ideas, one of the film’s biggest letdowns is the underwhelming presence of its principal setting and shooting location. Scotland’s famously breathtaking Isle of Skye serves as the backdrop for Consecration’s convent, yet the natural beauty of the island is never captured or defined. In fact, the drab and dreary monotony of Grace’s lonely life as an ophthalmologist follows her to what should be breathtaking vistas of jagged cliffs and rugged ocean waves. The most stunning shot of the impressive landscape is a bloody vision of nuns flinging themselves off of the seaside cliffs in a mass suicide, which honestly feels crass. Obviously, it’s compelling to juxtapose natural beauty with human horrors, but this technique can’t quite hold water if there’s no attempt to present the earthly allure of the region in the first place.
Cinematographers Rob Hart and Shaun Mone don’t cast their cameras upon the terrain with any perceptible wonder or curiosity; their only objective is obtaining the requisite shots to tell a flatly realized account of spiritual unease. Their general lack of admiration for Skye makes one wonder why the film even opted to shoot on location at all; the filmmakers could have easily gotten the same result by filming on an equally uninspired set. Adding to the confusion of the Scotland-specific setting is Malone’s unconvincing background: She sports a wobbly British accent, while the ghostly visage of her brother sounds unfalteringly American despite their shared childhood history, making the characters’ relationships to their surroundings unclear even from the basic standpoint of regional or adopted speech patterns.
The most compelling aspect of Consecration has everything to do with its interrogation of the cyclical violence bred by a powerful religious force. This is especially true when it comes to the role that the Vatican’s henchman plays as it concerns the film’s most nefarious revelation. However, the narrative ultimately seems far more interested in Grace’s troubled (yet bizarrely secular) upbringing, incorporated into the plot through gratuitous flashbacks that only distract from her investigation. At least this background isn’t completely useless, as her childhood maladies turn out to be integral pieces to an overarching puzzle concerning her inevitable (un)holy “fate” and the real reason why she was drawn to roam the convent grounds in the first place.
However, just because these flashbacks hold hidden meaning for Grace doesn’t mean that they’re at all effective, boiling down to a climactic twist that outright copies The Haunting of Hill House (without a modicum of the show’s emotional impact) and offers little clarity as to why the story took this turn. “My brother always believed I had a guardian angel. I used to believe in nothing. Now I’m not so sure.” This voiceover musing from Grace bookends the film and, much like Consecration’s protagonist, the audience remains equally unsure about what to make of this tepid tale of faith, revenge and corruption.
Director: Christopher Smith
Writers: Christopher Smith, Laurie Cook
Stars: Jenna Malone, Danny Huston, Janet Suzman, Thoren Ferguson
Release Date: February 10, 2022 (IFC Midnight/Shudder)
Natalia Keogan is Filmmaker Magazine’s web editor, and regularly contributes freelance film reviews here at Paste. Her writing has also appeared in Blood Knife Magazine, SlashFilm and Daily Grindhouse, among others. She lives in Queens with her large orange cat. Find her on Twitter @nataliakeogan