BY ROCCO THOMPSON
There’s just something about nuns. Whether flying or singing, kindly or cruel, ever virginal or newly reformed, these brides of Christ have a rich legacy in film. Of course, repression and drama go together like milk and honey, but the real reason is simpler: nuns are always cinematic. The true blacks. The blinding whites. The uniformity of both image and motion. In the visual medium of film, these elements equal a striking outward expression of inward torment—a perfect marriage of form and content.
Dig a little, and one finds that the Horror genre boasts a bevy of spooky abbesses. From THE EXORCIST III’s central, unforgettable jump-scare, to the charmingly nicknamed “Sister Death” in Paco Plaza’s viral hit VERONICA, to the titular ghost in the upcoming THE CONJURING 2 spin-off, THE NUN, creepy contemplatives have always done fair box-office business for any director with a passing interest in Catholic dogma. Less familiar to contemporary audiences is the wellspring of nun-centric films that emerged in the wake of Ken Russell’s controversial 1971 masterpiece, THE DEVILS. Second only to the Nazisploitation subgenre—which has largely remained dead, thank heavens—in terms of sheer shock value, the Nunsploitation flicks are a veritable onslaught of Satanic imagery, provocative nudity, righteous violence, and burgeoning feminist thought. Though the Italians led the charge, (as they always did at the grindhouse) naughty nun features were produced from Japan all the way to Mexico. These impious entertainments became a cross-cultural box office phenomenon as widespread as Catholicism itself. Aside from the sordid thrill of seeing busty mothers superior gettin’ down with Old Scratch, the Nunsploitation films provide ample food for thought in regard to the nature of womanhood as it exists within authoritarian spheres. At best, these movies show the oppressive nature of religious devotion and the way it breeds mental decay. At worst, they play into the primitive, yet enduring prejudice that the female is a weak, contemptable creature: a slave to her basest instincts and desires.
Whether one finds them offensive or empowering, these Nunsploitation films are a blast for both the lapsed believer and any fan of iconoclastic cinema. Below, we list seven essential entries in the genre.
FLAVIA THE HERETIC (1974)
Goddess of Eurotrash cinema, Florinda Bolkan (LIZARD IN A WOMAN’S SKIN) stars in this searing feminist treatise gussied up in the trappings of Medieval drama. As Sister Flavia Gaetani, Bolkan rages against the church establishment after she sees their inaction when a local girl is raped in a pig-sty. “Why is God a man?” she hisses. “Father, Son, Holy Spirit…all men!” Her words are overheard by the sister Agata, (one-time French icon María Casares) a brassy old broad who spends her days pissing in fields and mockingly squeezing men’s privates. She shows Flavia how to transgress the male oppressor from within the walls of their holy prison. When opportunity presents itself in the form of a Muslim warship, Flavia helps the soldiers invade the convent in a bid to escape the life she knows for the “other world” she dreams exists outside.
Director Gianfranco Mingozzi spiritually aligns Flavia with Lilith, the first woman, according to Jewish fable. “Created of refuse and dung” to be Adam’s first wife, she refused to be subservient and fled the Garden of Eden: becoming a dangerous, sexually wanton, baby-stealing demon. Early on, Flavia hears this tale and takes action to free herself, though her ultimate unshackling comes at a cost: the lives of her sisters, and ultimately, herself. An understated, lovingly-shot jewel of exploitation cinema, FLAVIA THE HERETIC is the rare Nunsploitation effort that packs in the good stuff (ie horse-castrations for the Mondo crowd and heady surrealism for the arthouse) while exploring desire and subjugation in terms serious enough to stimulate introspection and debate.
SCHOOL OF THE HOLY BEAST (1974)
An aesthetic marvel and essential work of post-WWII Japanese cinema when viewed in a certain context, SCHOOL OF THE HOLY BEAST drags Christianity with a piquant savagery. With its main antagonist bearing the scars of the nuclear blast at Nagasaki, (a city founded by Portuguese Catholics) the film posits Western influence as a corrupting, destructive force. It tells the story of Maya (Yumi Takigawa), who becomes a sister at the Sacred Heart Convent in an attempt to discover what happened to her mother, a nun who died under mysterious circumstances many years earlier.
Director Norifumi Suzuki’s film sits firmly in Toei’s “Erotic-Grotesque” mold, which was of immense popularity in the country at the time. His use of garish, overheated colors stands in direct contrast to the deep blacks and stark whites of the sisters themselves. The nuns’ movements are meticulously choreographed with that of Suzuki’s camera, which spends lots of time slowly gliding around them like a butterfly among gravestones. This tightly controlled aestheticism reaches breathtaking levels in the scenes of torture that make up the bulk of the running time. The best of these sees Maya bound with vines and beaten with bunches thorny roses by her fellow contemplatives, flecks of blood and petals flying in a slow-motion flurry of sensuality and violence.
Though the film is purposefully exaggerated, there’s a distinctly Japanese sense of artistry, discipline, and history that buoys it. Shamelessly cribbing elements from Horror, Crime-Drama, Samurai film, and “Pinku Eiga” features, SCHOOL OF THE HOLY BEAST uses its free-wheeling sense of genre to explore dark truths about the human condition through titillation and stylistic extremes.
SATANICO PANDEMONIUM (1975)
Mexican Director Gilberto Martínez Solares’ feature is an obvious favorite of Quentin Tarantino, who named Salma Hayek’s vampire queen in FROM DUSK TILL DAWN after the film, (unfortunately the movie’s alternate title LA SEXORCISTA has yet to inspire any fictional characters) but this title belies the film’s true nature as a surprisingly reigned-in affair about a country nun slowly unraveling.
The film begins with Sister Maria (Cecilia Pezet) walking in a lush green field. This idyllic vision is quickly spoiled when a fully nude man pops into the frame. After a flash of recognition, Maria flees in fright. It isn’t long before the handsome stranger (Enrique Rocha) introduces himself as “Luzbel,” AKA Lucifer, and announces that he’s come for her soul, natch. After seducing her in the guise of a lesbian nun, the Prince of Darkness coos: “If you need me, want me, just think of me.” Of course, Maria fails not to think of this particular pink elephant and proceeds to murder and fuck her way through her pastoral burg, uncertain whether the Devil himself is driving her or she’s slowly losing her mind.
Typically, Nunsploitation films are surpassingly literal when it comes to the cloven-hoofed bad boy himself, but SATANICO PANDEMONIUM keeps the viewer in a constant state of uncertainty: Is Rocha’s handsome tempter a force of external evil, or is he a metaphor for the wickedness that has always existed within Maria? Solares never offers up a pat answer, choosing instead to let the audience share Maria’s ever-shifting perspective. With strong use of silence, simple in-camera effects, and a fuzzy, hypnotically ambient soundtrack, SATANICO PANDEMONIUM lulls the audience into a state of confusion just like its protagonist, and proves quite compelling for just that reason.
KILLER NUN (1978)
Poor Anita Ekberg. From the glamour of LA DOLCE VITA to this dreck. This fairly flaccid one-time “video nasty” stars the aging bombshell as Sister Gertrude, a caretaker recovering from a recent brain tumor removal. Though everything is peachy-keen on the surface, Sister Gertrude’s remission is short-lived: she’s soon injecting morphine to numb a mysterious pain, engaging in lesbian sex with her bunkmate, and stomping feeble old ladies’ dentures to bits. Worst of all: every time she shoots up, a man ends up dead, and she can’t seem to remember whether she did the killing.
Giulio Berruti has only two directing credits to his name, a fact that will surprise no one who’s soldiered through KILLER NUN’s tension-free runtime. Aside from a handful of truly sick, morphine-addled montages, there’s little style on display and the pacing is glacial: a scene in which a paraplegic patient hauls his weakened body up a staircase seems to take up three-fourths of the runtime. Yet, there are pleasures to be had here. A great sequence sees the still sex-kitteny Ekberg get dolled up, don a devastating navy coat, and cruise the nearest town for some anonymous lovemaking. The murder scenes are lurid in a Giallo-y way and the ending packs a bit of an artistic wallop. Though a good deal more prim and vapid than the other films on this list, KILLER NUN is still an enjoyable enough time-waster for lovers of whodunnits and aging Teutonic starlets.
A favorite of recent Best Director winner Guillermo Del Toro, Juan Lopez Moctezuma’s ALUCARDA is a jaw-dropping piece of cinematic insanity quite unlike anything else on this list. At the start of this Satanic fairytale, the beautiful Justine (Susana Kamini) arrives at a convent that also houses orphans. One such waif is Alucarda, (Tina Romero) a strange, wild-haired girl who collects insect husks in bottles. She and Justine are fast friends and spend their days rollicking in the hills while talking about death. One day, after escaping from a band of gypsies, they duck into an abandoned church where they unleash an unseen evil that possesses them both and brings destruction and damnation upon the convent.
What ALUCARDA lacks in plot it more than makes up for in audacious freneticism. Kamini and Romero shriek, bend, and spin their way through scenes of high-octane madness of a ferocity to rival Isabelle Adjani in Zulawski’s POSSESSION (1981). Purposefully stagey and full of visual metaphor, the film is a perfect storm of unbridled hysteria and feminine pain; the sisters who care for the girls are outfitted in habits that looks more like menses-stained bandages than the robes of the devoted, and their cavernous, womb-like cloister comes to resemble the bowels of Hell itself in the film’s fiery finale. Is ALUCARDA a story about repressed lesbian desire? The conflict between Paganism and Christianity? One can only grope blindly for Moctezuma’s intention, but even if it’s full of sound and fury and signifies nothing, it’s one helluva good time.
THE OTHER HELL (1981)
Author Daniel Budnik once described Bruno Mattei as “the best of all possible rip-off artists,” a title of sincere adulation for one who joys in the crassly derivative yet stylistically distinctive Italian exploitation film industry. THE OTHER HELL is most indicative of his signature style: there’s not a unique moment in it, but any fan of Fulci or Argento will readily lap up the film’s delectable blend of familiar elements. THE OTHER HELL stars Franca Stoppi (the stew-flecked “Iris” of Joe D’Amato’s supremely nasty BEYOND THE DARKNESS) as Mother Vincenza, the head of an abbey suffering a rash of apparent “suicides.” An inquisitive Father Valerio, (Carlo De Mejo) detecting something fishy about the “suicide” victims’ gruesomely mutilated private parts, comes to investigate and finds himself in a battle with the forces of darkness.
Fans of Italian gore shouldn’t pass this flick up: from its heavy use of Prog rock and primary-colored lighting to its killer dogs, psychic children and zombies, THE OTHER HELL is a veritable smorgasbord of stylistic tropes and familiar effects. The plot is wholly nonsensical, but Mattei keeps everything at such fever-pitch intensity you won’t even notice, and the reptilian Stoppi’s rictus-like grin is a price-of-admission-worthy spectacle all its own.
DARK WATERS (1993)
Though made far too late to count as an official Nunsploitation feature, Mariano Baino’s masterful DARK WATERS is both a throwback to the grindhouse offerings of the director’s countrymen, and a staggering feat of expressionistic terror. Baino’s whirlwind of sound and vision—dripping water, crumbling tabernacles, screaming babies, groaning beasts—instills in the viewer a sense of elemental terror lying just beyond human experience. This feeling of unease is shared by Elizabeth (Louise Salter) who travels to a convent on a remote island where her mother supposedly died giving birth. A young novitiate named Sarah (Venera Simmons) is charged with guiding Elizabeth through the underworld of the convent, where the sisters march about with flaming crosses and an oracle paints horrific images of things to come, sniffing blindly around a pit. It isn’t long before Elizabeth realizes that she has a connection to the disturbing place that goes far deeper than she initially knew.
The film is light on plot, but it’s more than enough to carry Baino’s overwhelming nightmare vision. The chasmal convent is a thing of dripping, oozing, almost anthropomorphic presence, and the sisters that inhabit it are silent, menacing wraiths. Though some viewers may find DARK WATERS slow, it glides toward its inevitable conclusion with confidence and savage grace, and though Baino may not offer easy answers, its unknowability is its power. Part Lovecraft, part Zulawski, part Argento, but all Baino, DARK WATERS is a film of terrible beauty that drowns the viewer in its alluring darkness and twists inside the stomach like a mucous-covered tentacle.
Further Viewing: THE DEVILS, LOVE LETTERS OF A PORTUGUESE NUN, THE SINFUL NUNS OF SAINT VALENTINE, THE DEMONS, SISTER EMANUELLE, STORY OF A CLOISTERED NUN, IMAGES IN A CONVENT, WET AND ROPE, THE TRUE STORY OF THE NUN OF MONZA, CONVENT OF SINNERS, THE LAST HOUSE ON THE BEACH