WHAT’S BLACK, WHITE AND RED ALL OVER?
I am probably going to burn in Hell. No, I have never had any great fear of Hell; growing up, my family’s beliefs ranged from Judaism to Christian Science, Atheism and a few agnostics thrown in for good luck (none of which are particularly known for their fire and brimstone). But, yes, I’m probably going to Hell. Why? Because this month I tackle “Nunsploitation” movies.
Nunsploitation came to prominence in the 70s, along with many other subgenres like Blaxploitation, Sexploitation and the ever-popular “Women in Prison” movies. The allure of Nunsploitation seems to center around the mystery behind closed convent doors and, like Women in Prison flicks, what kind of naughtiness happens when women are locked up together. Unlike the bad girls of the WOP flicks, the nuns also have the image of innocence. Combine those two, and you have the whole corruption factor which becomes the defining characteristic of Nunsploitation.
The instigation for this month’s theme was my finding a copy of Killer Nun, an Italian flick from 1979. I’d been curious to see this for a while, mainly because I’m somewhat of a Joe D’Alessandro fan. D’Alessandro became famous for his roles in a good chunk of the Warhol-produced flicks, and I got a kick out of watching him in The Gardener (plant horror is always fun). I’d heard about this for years, and only when I ran across a Blue Underground DVD did I finally get around to watching it.
Sadly, this was a bit of a disappointment. Not only did D’Alessandro have such a minor role that he was basically useless to the movie, but the dubbing was horrible. Up until very recently, movies from Italy were filmed without sync sound, with all dialogue being re-dubbed after production. I admit, D’Alessandro is not known for his deft acting ability, but there’s a charm to his oftentimes wooden performances. To my horror, they had a different actor do his dialogue, and was actually very good. That would have worked fine if his facial features mimicked the realistic emoting, but it didn’t. Every time he opened his mouth, I was pulled out of the movie and distracted by my own “WTF” ponderings.
But enough about my D’Alessandro disappointment. Killer Nun is about, well, a bad, bad nun who works in a hospital, played by Anita Ekberg. She had some sort of brain surgery that left her addicted to morphine. Whether the addiction or the effects of having somebody dig around in her brain, she’s not right in the head. She tortures and abuses the patients, indulges in very non-nun-like behavior with both men and women, and might very well be a murderer. We can’t be sure, and she herself can’t be entirely sure, because all the killings that happen around her occur in the midst of some fascinatingly filmed hallucination sequences. Those parts are the best thing about Killer Nun. Director Giulio Berruti crafts some gorgeously surreal images and splices them together in a wonderfully unsettling way. However, as a horror movie, it failed for me. The murder sequences held back, something which normally appeals to me. But in Killer Nun, Berruti pulled back just a few seconds too early, and we weren’t sucked in nearly enough to be horrified. Ekberg’s fantastic performance actually harmed the horror aspect. Instead of being some fearsome creature, I found myself actually pitying her at times while she battled her own lack of sanity. Another horror-killing factor was the music. During the 70s, Italian horror embraced electronic pop. Every time something scary or disturbing was even hinted at in Killer Nun, blaring electro-pop would immediately start, jarring me out of the moment. This was not my favorite of the Nunsploitations I explored.
Italy wasn’t the only country to embrace Nunsploitation. The 1973 Mexican movie Satanico Pandemonium took a different approach to the subgenre. The central nun in this one started out the movie with stereotypical innocence. Sister Maria was a big-hearted young nun, always with an encouraging word to both her cloistered sisters and the village proper. She had a magic touch at healing animals, and a fierce dedication to the church. And yet, the Devil himself is able to tempt her through sexuality. After a very brief internal debate, Sister Maria falls to the dark side, indulging in sex, murder and more sex.
With a title like Satanico Pandemonium, I thought there would be a bunch of devilish horror. I should have paid more attention to the alternate title: La Sexorcista. The violent scenes of murder and torture were rather well done—just enough blood and gore to affect me, but not so much that I became disgusted or disaffected. However, those were few and far between. Instead, Satanico Pandemonium focused more on the sexual temptations and transgressions. For every one scene of violence, there are about four lesbian seductions, attempted seduction of a boy, demonic seduction. I’m sure this is a huge draw for a chunk of its core audience, but not me. I will admit, though, that the cinematographer did a gorgeous job of assembling both the blood bits and the boobie bits, and even if I wasn’t excited by the scene, I had to admit they looked beautiful.
One country I never expected to join the Nunsploitation love train was Japan. It’s not a predominantly Christian nation, let alone Catholic, but I think it’s the very nature of their ‘otherness’ that make nuns and hence, Nunsploitation, appealing. School of the Holy Beast was an odd little movie. Teenaged Maya knows almost nothing about her birth mother, other than she died in a convent. So Maya goes undercover as a wanna-be nun to investigate. On the road to discovering the truth of her birth, Maya finds sadism, lesbianism, torture and power games. It sounds like your typical Nunsploitation. And yet, it is not. The camera is almost always in constant motion, with tilt angles, zoom shots, tracking shots. What could have been simply a weird sequence where Maya is punished by being whipped with rose thorns becomes oddly beautiful shown in slow-motion. It’s easy to get sucked into the lovely filmmaking, and then suddenly you remember you’re watching constant sadism. Each moment of cruelty outdoes the previous until, by the time the movie was over, I felt like I needed a bath. Maybe three baths. However, there was one aspect that flipped the scales to the ‘awesome’ side for this movie: Nun-Fu. Yes, there are two fight scenes in the movie where we encounter nuns performing some awesome kung-fu. It’s hard for me to be bothered by anything in there once I picture the Nun-Fu.
Oddly, the movie I thought I would hate the most turned out to be my favorite. It might be that I was expecting very little from this one. I found The Halfway House in the dollar rack at the local used place. It had a sinister looking nun on the cover, a one-eyed monster, and a few women who looked thirty trying to look fifteen. The cover made it look absolutely awful, but it was a buck and I needed a fourth movie.
It started out pretty damn bad. Woman goes undercover in The Mary Magdalen (their spelling, not mine) Halfway House for Troubled Girls to find out why the janitor has her missing sister’s headphones. Mind you, the sister didn’t go to the halfway house or have anything to do with it. Small plot hole that best goes ignored. So she goes in, and immediately blends in with the other “troubled teens”. One would wonder how a thirty year old woman could blend in so well with “troubled teens”. It’s easy when all the other “troubled teens” are in their twenties and thirties. Again, plot hole best left ignored. Lots of soft-core-porn level sex romps (straight and lesbian), a spanking-porn-obsessed priest and some over-the-top five-dollar gore effects.
How does something that horrible get to be my top pick of the review? It was directed by Kenneth Hall, the man who wrote the Full Moon Puppet Master movies, and has the same self-effacing humor (in one scene while the girls are being spanked, they must shout “The power of Christ compels me!”). The evil nun of the cover, the one in charge of the girls, is played by none other than cult movie goddess Mary Woronov. She specializes in insane, sadistic dominatrix-type women, and this role might have well been made for her. Not only does she play a crazy nun, but a crazy nun who secretly worships the Necronomicon and is sacrificing the girls to an “Elder God”. Yes, this is Soft-Core-Porn, Lovecraftian Nunsploitation Comedy. It’s not every day you come across a movie with that kind of combination and, bad acting, bad script and bad effects aside, it was a hell of a lot of fun to watch.
Perhaps I won’t be damned for writing this. I can hope. If anybody has ideas for penance, let me know. Until then, I feel like I have to watch My Neighbor Totoro back to back for the next week so I can chase some of these images from my mind.
WHERE TO FIND THE MOVIES: Satanico Pandemonium is out of print, and will run you about $10-$15 bucks on EBay. However, somebody has uploaded the movie onto YouTube, fastforwarded, and with sound effects added: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XyW5pPBQrsA Trust me—watch this version. It’s hilarious, even if the cartoonish sound is currently driving my cat nuts.
Killer Nun: You can get a used copy for under five dollars. Still not sure if you’ll get your money’s worth.
School of the Holy Beast: Recently went out of print, but you can still get copies for less than twenty dollars. If you have any desire to see this thing, pick it up now because I have a feeling this will get a collector following very soon.
The Halfway House: If you want the R-Rated cut (the one I saw), you can get a copy on EBay for three bucks. There’s a special unrated director’s cut (that I have yet to watch) floating around for about two dollars more.