WELCOME TO MERCY Hops Aboard the Scary Nun Bandwagon (Screamfest Review)

Nuns don’t have to be evil ghosts to be scary. Anyone who grew up in a Catholic environment can tell you the living ones who serve the good Lord are every bit as intimidating as any jump-scare creature created for the big screen. Welcome to Mercy may well have gotten picked up by IFC Midnight because they knew there’d be some coattails (or rather, a hemline) to ride following the most recent Conjuring spinoff, but its ladies of habit are here to help. Mostly. Which makes them no less frightening.They’re not the primary threat, however. What’s inside of Latvian-American mom Madaline (Kristen Ruhlen, who also wrote the screenplay) is. Sent away to the United States at a very young age, Madaline is returning to the old homeland with her young daughter Willow (Sophia Massa, voiced by Eva Ariel Binder) at the behest of her dying father. She’s received coldly by her mother at first, but eventually they’re allowed to stay. And then…stuff happens. We watch from Madaline’s perspective, so it’s not entirely clear what, but people are flung against walls, wounds spontaneously open, and Willow is badly hurt, so on the suggestion of creepy Angus Scrimm lookalike Father Joseph, Madaline is taken to a nearby convent where she can presumably be exorcised, or get whatever it is that needs doing to banish the bad supernatural thing.

This ought to be where things get double-creepy, as the new location is a convent isolated by water, and there’s a bell tower people aren’t allowed to go in. Instead, it’s where the narrative just stalls. There’s no real sense of urgency or escalating stakes; Madaline isn’t getting worse, after all. She’s just not getting better as quickly as she’d like. Yes, she hears voices a lot, and has the same flashbacks over and over, but rather than building to a climax, they feel like they’re marking time until the story is sufficiently feature-length to get to the interesting stuff in the resolution. There’s a hint in the direction of a same-sex relationship with another recent arrival, Lily Newmark’s August, but director Tommy Bertelson seems too timid to go there. Interestingly enough, evangelical Christian distributors Pure Flix are handling international distribution of this film, so even though it shows a bit more blood than their God’s Not Dead trilogy, you know it can’t get too graphic.You might wonder why this Latvian convent is populated mostly by nuns who speak English with British accents, or why a cat that looks like Madaline’s childhood pet shows up. You’ll find out eventually, as Welcome to Mercy gets its creepiness back by the end, though it’s hampered by a soundtrack that’s more “cheesy song from an anime” than Goblin giallo score. The story as a whole might have been better served as an hour-long episode in an anthology series; rest assured, if you need to take a bathroom break in the middle you won’t miss anything super-important. Bertelson gets effective scares from minimalist effects like creepy contact lenses and subjective possession shots with cuts to black unconsciousness where necessary. If only he did that throughout.Dancing around spoilers a bit, the origin of the bad thing, once revealed, is an event that makes you go “huh?” Like, it’s something that you’d suspect might happen quite often, but without those terrible results most of the time. It’s hard to say more, but just imagine a movie in which the act of a cop shooting a perp conjured a demon. You’d wonder about all the other times that happens and why the demon on this particular occasion, right?You’ll certainly wonder about the logic of its master plan, but only afterwards. When the movie works, it works. But that’s maybe half the time.2/5

Images: IFC Midnight

Luke Y. Thompson was raised in Ireland with a healthy fear of nuns. Now he reviews movies and toys, and you can find him on all the socials.

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