Sometimes you must ignore the reviews and take a leap of faith because Christopher Smith’s latest “Consecration” deserves more praise.
I have a soft spot for religious horror films, those that explore the hypocrisy of the church, and films that feature the clash between faith and reason. Thus, I was immediately intrigued by the premise of Consecration.
In fact, on paper, at least, this film has everything in the world going for it.
First, it’s the latest from highly established and well-respected British filmmaker Christopher Smith. Smith is responsible for some of my favorite indie horror films of all time, including his impressive and chilling 2004 debut Creep, the pitch-perfect horror comedy Severance, and the brilliant mind-f*ck that is the underrated Triangle.
Not only has he proven that he can make a great horror film, but he’s also proven to be highly adept at many different types of horror — equally effective at making you laugh, making you think, and making you tense every muscle in your body in terror and anxiety.
Smith also has a history of writing intelligent, complex, meaty parts for his female leads and eliciting some damn compelling and captivating performances.
Thus, when I heard his latest would center around the wildly talented and always reliable Jena Malone, it was impossible not to get my hopes up for Consecration.
Unfortunately, early reviews of the film have been far from favorable, and it currently holds a pretty dismal 38% on Rotten Tomatoes (though it is trending higher as more reviews come in).
Having watched the film and formed my own impressions, I did some digging to determine why most mainstream critics dismiss this one.
It seems to come down to a couple of common complaints.
Depending on which reviews you read, the film either tries to do too much and doesn’t spend enough time really unpacking any of its interesting ideas, or it doesn’t do enough and feels dull and derivative.
I’m going to address each of these points. But first, I’ll set the stage.
Malone plays an eye doctor named Grace. Her name offers a bit of heavy-handed irony because Grace is a woman of science, a proud atheist who not only disavows religion but has little patience or appreciation for the Catholic Church.
Her adopted brother, Michael (Steffan Cennydd), on the other hand, was quite devout and working as a priest at a remote, clifftop convent in Scotland.
Though the two had drifted apart, Grace is devastated to hear of Michel’s tragic death at the convent.
Grace heads to Mount Saviour Convent, a place known for its extreme and rigid practices, to get to the bottom of her brother’s suspicious death.
According to the church, Michael took his own life after killing another priest.
Neither of those things seems possible to Grace, and she immediately senses that the church is dealing in secrets, lies, and misinformation. Her fears are not remotely abated by the odd and unwelcoming behavior of the nuns, especially the gruff Mother Superior (Janet Suzman).
The only one who treats her with any sort of ahem, grace is the replacement priest, Father Romero, played by the incredible Danny Huston.
Romero at least gives the appearance of someone who is kindhearted, level-headed, wryly funny, and committed to helping Grace get to the bottom of things. Of course, in a situation like this, horror fans may be inclined to trust him the least.
Also working to help unravel the mystery is the Chief Investigator, Harris (Thoren Ferguson), giving the film its important but least interesting police procedural element.
As soon as Grace arrives at the convent, she begins to have disturbing visions. She even receives a warning from her deceased brother, urging her to return home.
The increasingly unnerving visions get so bad they cause her to collapse and lose time. One potent vision results in her nearly drowning before being rescued by her taxi driver and returned to the care of the nuns.
Back at the convent, she’s stripped of her wet clothes and redressed in the same beige habit as the nuns, necessitating she blend in rather than stand out and elegantly symbolizing the attempt to strip her of her identity and force conformity.
Consecration plays with the concept of time, moving forwards and backward and revealing clues slowly like a puzzle being pieced together.
It opens with a jarring scene that takes us forward in time and feels out of place until the film’s end, when we finally come full circle.
CONSECRATION convinces viewers early on that it could be vying for “elevated” horror status. Between its stellar cast, stunning cinematography, and atmospheric slow-building mystery, it feels very much like an arthouse offering with the pedigree to pull off that label.
It’s lush with visual symbolism, and Smith makes expert use of his mostly single location, delivering lots of swoon-worthy shots of scenic hills, foreboding gray skies, and jagged cliffs perched precariously over a turbulent sea.
However, if there’s one consistent theme in this film, it’s that everything is not as it seems.
As the story progresses, we’re slowly introduced to pieces of Grace’s troubled backstory, and horrific childhood told through flashbacks — shown as if they are being revealed to us at the same time as Grace; traumatic repressed memories forced back to the surface.
Those flashbacks — and the wild ending — are where the film will either lose you or win you over.
Tonally different from the present-day proceedings and slow-burning mystery, it’s where the film gets considerably darker and more unhinged.
The horror of Grace’s past is extreme, and Smith intentionally leans into old-school horror camp with nods to exploitation cinema as he ramps up to the surprise reveal and visually sumptuous finale. It’s where he proudly proclaims, “This isn’t just a stuffy arthouse mystery; we’re here to have a good time.”
One criticism I’ve heard is that there just isn’t enough of the “weird” to justify the attempt at Smith’s kitchen-sink approach to storytelling. In other words, he could have benefited from leaning harder into the crazy and swinging for the cult classic fences.
Likewise, there’s too much of it for the film to work as a straightforward mystery thriller; too many WTF moments, loose ends, and forced suspension of belief.
Both are probably fair criticisms. And yet, for this critic at least, it just works. In fact, I’d wager if you’re a fan of Smith’s work, especially a film like Triangle, you should find plenty to appreciate with Consecration.
It is a film that requires your full attention, and it does ask as many questions as it answers. The ending will either thrill you or make your eyes roll, and much of its effectiveness depends on your particular sensibilities.
It’s also much sillier and weirder than a film like Triangle, focusing more on the underlying themes than the actual mystery itself.
Yet, those themes are rich and meaningful, as Consecration has a lot to say about how women are perceived and oppressed by patriarchal religion.
It’s a feminist twist on how we define good and evil and the morally gray space between “God and His Shadow”.
I personally had a blast with it.
And it’s impossible to argue that it’s not an exceptionally well-made film boasting some stellar performances. At a minimum, there’s enough here to keep you invested. Malone is capable enough to carry the weight of a film on just her own shoulders, but she gets plenty of help from a fine supporting cast.
I’ve heard criticism that the film feels derivative, but I personally reveled in the stylish homages to classic religious horror.
And while it does often feel that everything under the sun has been done to death when it comes to this subgenre, Smith and his co-writer Laurie Cook do enough to surprise and subvert expectations, even if there’s far more fascinating stuff happening here than the film can contain in its brief 90-minute runtime.
In fact, if I had one criticism, it would be that this film could have benefited from having more time to explore some of its most engaging plotlines.
With that said, I always appreciate a film that respects its audience and doesn’t overstay its welcome. And it makes it easier for me to strongly encourage you to invest your time and give this one a chance, even if you’re just a little curious.
For this one, I say, critical consensus be damned; Consecration is a hell of a good time.