By Liam Lacey
Well, this is disturbing. A young man takes an investigative assignment to find out what happened to a missing teenager. He ends up at the door of an attractive woman who lives in a cabin.
At first, he pretends to be a reporter, but, as he grows more intimate with her, he admits to the ruse. Later, when he comes to in chains in her basement, he realizes he made a mistake.
Poor Agnes, which won Best Canadian Feature at Montreal's Fantasia Festival in July, is a blackly comic, low-budget horror film with an unusual female villain, deftly played by newcomer Lora Burke. Her Agnes is a girl-next-door with a combination of glazed detachment and a hair-trigger temper.
Agnes is both a psychopath and a sadist, a combination popular in Hollywood - though, in reality, a contradiction. (Sadists are tuned into and aroused by their victim's pain; psychopaths are indifferent to it.) Unlike some other recent female serial killers in movies (Jonathan Glazer's Under the Skin, with Scarlett Johansson as a preying alien, and Lady MacBeth’s wanton Victorian) the almost-sympathetic Agnes has a strong, if inaccurate, sense of justice.
"I never feel sorry for the people I hurt because I always hurt the right people," she says.
There's a slight crack in her confidence when Agnes and Mike (Robert Notman), her submissive captive, begin to share feelings. Poor Agnes threatens to turn into a twisted romance. That takes a detour when a new relationship/target presents himself. Chris (Will Conlon) is a pasty computer nerd who connects with her. He comes across as a sensitive guy, a pose undermined by his inability to resist her trashy come-ons. He too, makes a big mistake.
Like many genre films, Poor Agnes could be interpreted as either misogynistic or feminist, though it’s best seen as sardonic take on male foolishness. Homicidal tendencies aside, Agnes is an extreme example of the “mean girlfriend.” She takes spiteful pleasure in the power she holds over a guy she dislikes. And he puts up with her barbs and threats, because, she's just too attractive to leave.
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There's a scene in Poor Agnes where the anti-heroine Agnes drops to the ground like G.I. Jane, and begins a punishing series of push-ups, confirmation that the character is someone not to be messed with.
I was curious whether that was actually a requirement for the audition.
No, says actress Lora Burke, but she has a side gig as a fitness instructor and "any time I can get physical in a role, I'm happy."
For several years before she acted, Burke was a professional dancer, performing on cruise ships, travelling the world. Raised in Oxford, England, she trained at the Hammond School, a performing arts school in Cheshire, where she also studied acting. Six years ago, she followed "a boy, love and dreams," to Canada and started studying again.
Since 2014, Burke has had a half-dozen parts in short films and features. Poor Agnes, is her first lead role, and, judging by the enthusiastic reaction at Fantasia and the Toronto After Dark Film Festivals, it's a break-out one.
To prepare for the part, Burke studied interviews with psychopaths on YouTube but avoided direct physical imitation. "Eventually I compartmentalized my research and focused on the script, the words and the flow."
There's a scene in a torture survivors group where Agnes offers a story about past trauma. The story could be bogus, the detachment is ambiguous. I was curious what she felt about the character's possible history.
"From my research, some psychopaths had traumatic experiences and some didn't. I didn't want it to be, 'She's a woman, so something must have happened to her to make her that way'. So, I played around with it and we tried it both ways in different takes."
Burke says she can't recall which take was used in the final edit.
The world of horror movies, she says, is new to her ("I'm usually too scared to see these kind of movies") but she enjoyed the festival fans for "their passion and their knowledge."
As for the genre's tricky boy-girl dynamics, she tried to approach it with preconceived ideas.
"For me, it was just important that she was a believable person. Sometimes she uses her feminine wiles. Sometimes she uses her intelligence. Agnes uses any tool in the box to get what she wants."