Markedly more accomplished than the usual run of self-consciously campy horror schlock, “The Convent” could become the next habit-forming attraction on the midnight-movie circuit. Even so, pic likely will fare better when it heeds its true calling to vid-store bins.
Attention-grabbing prologue establishes urban legend of death and destruction at the St. Francis Boarding School for Girls. One fateful night in 1960, a heavily armed ex-student strides into the school chapel, whips out a shotgun and blows away a priest and several nuns. Saving the worst for last, young Christine (Oakley Stevenson) douses the Mother Superior with gasoline, then flicks a lit cigarette in her direction.
Forty years later, St. Francis has long been closed and shuttered, but that doesn’t stop prankish college kids from occasionally revisiting the scene of the crime. Some particularly foolhardy undergraduates break into the building to spray-paint their Greek letters on the walls — and, while they’re at it, smoke some pot and do what reckless undergraduates always do in this kind of pic.
Cops interrupt the festivities and chase away most of the gang. Goth chick Mo (Megahn Perry) stays behind, only to be captured as a potential human sacrifice by would-be Satanists. The faux devil worshippers — who look and sound as though they learned everything they know about the black art from “Saturday Night Live” sketches — conjure up real demons when they ceremonially stab Mo, and when the other college kids return to retrieve their companion, they’re methodically slaughtered and transformed into undead vessels of evil spirits.
Clarissa (Joanna Canton), the mandatory “nice girl” of the bunch, fortuitously escapes. But when she approaches a wild-eyed, jive-ranting cop (a funny cameo by rapper Coolio), the frightened officer mistakes the blood-splattered coed for an unholy ghost, and chases her off. Desperate for succor, Clarissa runs to the home of the only person who might appreciate her situation: the grown-up Christine (Adrienne Barbeau), newly released from a mental hospital. Despite some initial reluctance, Christine agrees to drag the heavy artillery out of mothballs and rescue, among others, Clarissa’s virginal dweeb of a brother. (“Goddamn demons!” Christine mutters. “It’s always something with a virgin!”) Clarissa joins Christine aboard the latter’s motorcycle, and the unlikely avengers varoom off to battle the forces of darkness.
Chaton Anderson’s wink-wink, nudge-nudge screenplay abounds in visual and verbal allusions to everything from “Night of the Living Dead” to “Scooby-Doo, Where Are You?” Director Mike Mendez dwells gleefully on scenes of jokey, over-the-top gore, but otherwise keeps the pace brisk enough to sustain the fang-in-cheek mood. Dean Jones’ special makeup effects are at once knowingly satirical and deadly serious. Jason Lowe’s lensing and John Rosenberg’s editing are appreciably better than they have to be.
Barbeau is an unmitigated hoot as the tough-talking, straight-shooting, leather-jacketed Christine, who reveals a surprising method to her seeming madness of four decades earlier. Canton ably demonstrates her scream queen credentials as the resourceful Clarissa. Among the supporting players, Gunn is standout as Saul, the fey Satanist who works at a fast-food restaurant when he isn’t overseeing human sacrifices.
The title, by the way, is something of a misnomer. But perhaps the filmmakers figured that “The Boarding School” wasn’t a sufficiently commercial title.