Producers: Laurie Cook, Jason Newmark, Casey Herbert, Xavier Marchand and Stuart Ford   Director: Christopher Smith   Screenplay: Christopher Smith and Laurie Cook   Cast: Jena Malone, Danny Huston, Janet Suzman, Thoren Ferguson, Steffan Cennydd, Ian Pirie, Alexandra Lewis, Jolande Obasola, Eilidh Fisher, Will Keen, Shaun Scott, Valerie Saruf and David Boyle   Distributor: IFC Midnight/Shudder

Grade: C

Atmospheric but lethargic and structurally misjudged, Christopher Smith’s religion-based horror film sets up an intriguing premise but fails to deliver on it. 

The protagonist of “Consecration” is the all-too-obviously-named Grace (Jena Malone), a petite, reserved but compassionate English ophthalmologist who receives news of the death of her brother Michael (Steffan Cennydd) in a bizarre incident at Mount Savior, a remote Catholic convent perched atop a seaside cliff on Scotland’s Isle of Skye.  A priest, he reportedly committed suicide by flinging himself off the precipice after killing another man of the cloth.

Grace, a confirmed—indeed, insistent—atheist, travels to Scotland, where DCI Harris (Thoren Ferguson), an island policeman in charge of investigating the incident, drives her to the convent.  There she’s met by the formidable Mother Superior (Janet Suzman), who presides over her large community of white-robed nuns with an imperious air while discoursing sternly on the battle between good and evil, and by Father Romero (Danny Huston), an ostentatiously considerate cleric from the Vatican, who offers both consolation and assistance.  But when she visits her brother’s corpse in a dark crypt, Grace is accosted by a vision of the dead man warning her that she’s in danger, and after awakening from a fainting spell, finds herself in one of the white robes of the nuns while her clothes are cleaned.

What quickly becomes clear, to us if not to her, is that Father Romero and Mother Superior are keeping secrets, intending to employ Grace to serve their own ends.  That includes inducing her to translate Michael’s journal, which he wrote in a code she may be able to decipher since they used it as children; though she was adopted, they’d bonded to support one another in the face of their brutal father Vincent (Ian Pirie), a religious fanatic who literally kept them locked up in cages.  Vincent also killed his wife, and is now incarcerated for the crime; when Grace visits him to tell him of his son’s death, his response is to fly into an inarticulate rage. 

It’s gradually revealed by Father Romero that the convent dates back to the twelfth century, when the site housed a crusading order called the Knights of the Morning Star, who fought demons as well as the infidel.  As Romero tells it, they kept in a special crypt a powerful relic that was lost not long ago in a natural disaster, a relic Michael was searching for.  They also practiced a unique form of confession that, if their sins were very numerous, could lead to their own death.  These revelations seem to be connected to dreams troubling Grace, in which she sees a group of the knights abduct a masked girl while she is conducting a pagan ritual in the forest.

Those aren’t the only dreams troubling Grace.  She also has frightening flashbacks to her traumatic childhood, as well as hallucinations in which she’s stalked and threatened by knife-wielding nuns.  Or are they hallucinations?

In its stately, gloomy fashion “Consecration” creates an ominous mood, and Malone cuts a sympathetic figure while Suzman, in particular among the nuns, radiates a sinister vibe and Huston adds the necessary touch of falsity to his ostensibly helpful priest.  Together Elizabeth El-Kadhi’s production design and the cinematography by Rob Hart and Shaun Mone employ looming stone walls and deep shadows to suggest being trapped in a place of cavernous dread, while Nathan Halpern’s somber score complements the visuals.

Yet Smith and co-writer Laurie Cook resort to cumbersome devices in an effort to keep viewers guessing.  They fill their screenplay with so many dreams, visions, flashbacks and flash-forwards that while the shifts keep us off balance, they grow increasingly frustrating; the very first sequence, for instance, actually destroys in one swoop any possible uncertainty about the attitude of one major character we’ve yet to meet, and when we return to it to bookend the story at the close, the way it plays out is derivative of a tactic familiar from far too many other films.  Before then the script has provided an explanation of what’s been going on (in a frantic montage of flashbacks very much at odds with the overall stately editing style of Arthur Davis and Brian Berdan), but the final revelation isn’t as surprising as Smith seems to think, particularly for one who’s patiently collected the obvious clues meted out along the way—or seen that old Twilight Zone episode, “The Howling Man.”

In sum, “Consecration” provides some low-energy shocks and moderately engaging twists, but among the host of “Omens,” “Exorcists” and similar offerings over the years, it’s a lesser contribution to the ever-expanding genre of Catholic-themed horror movies.