3.5 out of 5 stars

Psychological thriller Agony is a difficult one to pigeonhole and will satisfy those turning up for a Gothic horror, intelligent chiller, and even a generational family saga. It’s certainly an attention-grabbing calling card for debut writer-director Michele Civetta.

New York artist Isadora (Asia Argento) learns that she’s actually a Marquesa—or, as her young daughter puts it, “a princess”. The shock revelation comes when Isadora learns that her mother, whom she believed had been dead for three decades, had only passed away the previous day. Not only does she inherit her mother’s rank and title, but also a vast rambling estate in rural Italy.

It could be the premise for a modern fairy tale, complete with an archetypal wicked witch, secret chambers, and maybe even a ‘princess’ imprisoned in a tower. Many of the ingredients may seem familiar, but they’re expertly blended. As for the fairy tale reading, some tropes are conspicuous by their absence. Mainly the happier ones.

When Isadora arrives at her family seat with husband, Michael (Jonathan Caouette), and daughter, Jordan (Salerno Claudia, voiced by Molly Jane McCarthy), the local townsfolk of Vignanello are preparing for a religious carnival and grim farmers work the fields around the Villa Rossetti. We seem to have arrived at Italy’s answer to Summerisle! We’re certainly visiting a similar folk horror domain as The Wicker Man (1973), and there’s even some festive animal masks a bit later—vestiges of paganism in the guise of a Christianised festival.

On arrival, Rudolfo (Ninetto Davoli) recognises Isadora instantly and accompanies her family up to the large estate. He turns out to be the head groundsman, who used to look out for her when she played in the vast sprawling grounds and formal mazes. Weirdly, everyone seems to remember Isadora as a child, though she has no recollection of being there at all. At least, that’s the case until she starts to be plagued by sinister flashbacks and nightmares featuring the frightening spectre of a ‘lady in red’.

Isadora is made welcome by Angelica (Monica Guerritore), chatelaine of the grand Villa, but there’s a touch of Mrs Danvers about her as she seems to attempt to control which areas of the house and grounds the family have access to. It seems she has something to hide, or perhaps something to say she can’t speak out loud. This all adds to Isadora’s increasing paranoia and she begins to suspect the estate staff, perhaps even the local villagers, are all in on some conspiracy involving her mother’s death. There’s that same sense of the previous mistress of the house influencing events from beyond the grave that Alfred Hitchcock played with in Rebecca (1940). And more than just a touch of Daphne Du Maurier about the whole thing.

However, as one is settling into psychological suspense mode, the hairs on the back of the neck start to prickle as sinister supernatural overtones begin to assert themselves. Isadora learns that the ‘lady in red’, from her increasingly macabre visions, matches the description of ‘the strega’—a witch from local folklore. An ex-lover of her mother, Carlo (Franco Nero), tells her of a family curse stretching back to the time of the Holy Inquisition, when the local ‘non-believers’ were executed on the land that was then gifted by the Church to her ancestors.

There’s a delicious mystery at the heart of Agony that could turn out to be supernatural, psychological, or criminal. The viewer may well consider a little bit of each on the way. For a film that deals in many familiar tropes and scenarios, its ambiguity keeps it from becoming predictable and the finale will stimulate discussion long after the end credits have rolled.

Cinematographer Nicola Pecorini beautifully captures the naturalistic and unmistakably European light. His background’s in music videos, so he’s not afraid to get creative with hallucinatory sequences which veer into motion graphics. There’s some great, though not ostentatious, use of Steadicam, which he’s previously showcased in his work on a few genre classics including Phenomena (1985), Opera (1987), and Two Evil Eyes (1990) for Dario Argento, as well as The Church (1989) and The Sect (1991) for Michele Soavi.

The sculptural soundtrack is a collaboration between Icelandic composer Barði Jóhannsson, of Bang Gang, and Liverpool-based musician Danial Hunt, of Ladytron. Their score’s an essential part of the doom-soaked whole and adds varied textures from brash crashing percussion to organic, almost bodily rumblings, and breathy pulses like the blood rushing through eardrums.

The actual sculptures and paintings included in the mise-en-scène—some provided by artists Sandro Chia and Lola Montes Schnabel, with additional installations by Mercello Cernetti—also add a touch of the bizarre. It seems the Villa had played host to a succession of artists in residence, many of whom left a piece of their work toward their ‘rent’. It’s also unclear where the differentiation between art object and occult fetish lies. That’s if there ever was such a boundary. One is reminded of the prominence that art often takes in driving the narrative of Argento movies.

Of course, this is an Argento movie! Asia is a perfect choice for the lead. Not only because her cult status will attract a certain set of viewers, but she strikes the right balance of formidable and vulnerable. She has an ability to transition from sweetness to feral ferocity with a twist of the lip, a flare of the nostrils, the briefest glaring glance. Not unlike another iconic actress of Italian horror, Barbara Steele, in another film about the struggle for possession of one’s soul set in a crumbling castle, The Mask of Satan (1960).  

Director Michele Civetta throws in plenty of deliberate homages to classic Italian horror and giallo. So, fans of those genres will find much joy amidst the grimness. The little girl dropping her ball, so it bounces on with seeming intent, is clearly a nod to Mario Bava’s Kill, Baby… Kill! (1966), and the setting has definite echoes of the Villa Grapps. If one taps into that vibe, everything starts to make more sense.

The creeping dread it evokes is reminiscent of Nicolas Roeg’s chilling adaptation of Daphne Du Maurier’s story Don’t Look Now (1973). Again we have a central character who has to make a choice in whether to believe supernatural premonition or shun such in favour of rational explanations. Likewise, it does touch on some real-world issues that could be triggers for those sensitive to, or affected by, them. There’s also a child in jeopardy and a scene that ingeminates the desperate panic of Donald Sutherland’s final chase along the canals of Venice in pursuit of a diminutive ‘lady in red’…  

The familiarity of Agony could’ve been its downfall, but instead it will delight and effectively absorb its intended audience. Although it’s riffing on some classics, its selection of them is impeccable. Civetta has triumphed by making the dread-addled atmospherics and old-school creepiness seem refreshing again. Agony does get pretty intense at times and trumps the easy scares of many modern horror movies.

USA | 2020 | 115 MINUTES | 2.35:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH

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Cast & Crew

director: Michele Civetta.
writers: Michele Civetta & Joseph Schuman.
starring: Asia Argento, Jonathan Caouette, Monica Guerritore, Ninetto Davoli, Franco Nero & Rade Šerbedžija.