Killer Nun (1979)

OCTOBER 15, 2019


I have only seen a handful of nunsploitation movies, so when I say that Killer Nun (Italian: Suor Omicidi) is one of the more interesting I've seen, you must take into consideration that it doesn't have a lot of competition. Still, as one of the few present day set ones, and a lack of torture or excessive nudity, I'm sure I'd say the same even with a little more hands-on experience with this unusual sub-genre, as director/co-writer Giulio Berruti is aiming for something a little less sleazy and exploitative and a little more psychological than, say, The Other Hell, but not "art house" like The Devils - it lands somewhere in between, presenting a decent (if easy to solve) mystery and some truly memorable bits of insanity and violence.

Speaking of Other Hell, there are two scenes in this movie that had me momentarily convinced that I had seen it before and just forgotten until my memory was jogged by these particular moments. It took a bit to remember they are from that other film, which also came later, so perhaps Hell director Bruno Mattei had seen this one and was intentionally "paying homage" to it? But otherwise they're fairly different; for starters this film has no supernatural elements whatsoever, grounding it in reality even more than the present day setting, which as I mentioned was somewhat rare as the films tended to go back in time to eras where the Church had more power. But it makes sense; the plot hews closer to a standard 1970s giallo than anything else, so a period setting would throw off that vibe I suspect.

Anita Ekberg plays Sister Gertrude, an older nun who is suffering from mood swings and blackouts as a side effect from brain surgery, a procedure that left her addicted to morphine on top of everything else. She is also starting to be openly hostile to the patients that her and the other sisters are caring for (it's a sort of rest home/convent, I guess?); in one insane scene she freaks out on an elderly woman who has put her dentures into a cup, and after chewing her out she throws the teeth on the floor and stomps on them over and over while the poor woman just cries hysterically (and later dies of a heart attack). But someone is also straight up murdering people around the joint, and she believes she herself is the killer (nun), chalking it up to the next logical step of her increasingly mean temper.

Naturally it's not that easy; if she WAS the killer she wouldn't be saying she was. Only someone with next to zero experience with mystery thrillers would have trouble pegging the real culprit, but that doesn't matter much - the fun is seeing both Gertrude and the real killer gradually lose their grip on sanity over the film's 90 minutes. Berruti throws in a few freak-out scenes (usually surrounding Gertrude's morphine usage) that help make up for the film's rather subdued "horror" elements (it goes on a few stretches that barely qualify as thriller fare, such as when Gertrude decides to head into the city to find a rando to screw), and it ultimately more or less fits the giallo definition - Berruti merely sticks closer to the dramatic side of the equation than the horror one that Argento and his imitators often did.

The real MVP of the film (besides that dentures scene; it's really something) is the score by Alessandro Alessandroni. It doesn't sound like a typical genre score, almost closer to western or something, but it works perfectly, and I thank Arrow for putting a decent length loop of it on the menu for me to enjoy whenever a bonus feature ended. As always the disc is well packed with interviews, plus a pretty good historian commentary by Adrian J. Smith and David Flint, where the men go into the history of nunsploitation a bit, comparing it to others using key scenes as examples, and on occasion rib a few of its wonkier moments. They also note how the film is indeed technically a giallo, but also sets itself apart from them as the murderer's identity is easy to solve whereas a true giallo the killer is on occasion a character who was so extraneous that more than once the reveal had audience members saying "Wait, who is that?". I wouldn't have minded more on the true story, howver; they note that it's a real thing that happened in Belgium, but offer up no other details and online info is a bit hard to come across to back it up. But otherwise it's a well rounded track, and reaffirms my belief that historian tracks are always better when there are two or more participants, as they otherwise tend to get too dry.

For more context on nunsploitation, there's a video essay by Kat Ellinger that runs nearly a half an hour and covers a lot of ground, and, much like the commentary, uses films like The Devils and School of the Holy Beast to show how Killer Nun fits into the sub-genre as a whole. It's a bit dry of course (it's an essay!) but it's an essential viewing for anyone like me who has yet to fully dive into this particular kind of film, if only to get an idea of which ones will be more your speed and which might be a bit too out there for you. Then there are some interviews with Berruti, editor Mario Giacco, and actress Ileana Fraia, whose 24 minute interview runs about 10 times as long as you'll see her in the film (she's neither of the leads and plays a character who is sent away relatively early).

If you've never seen any of these kind of films, this might be a good place to start. It's not overly graphic or violent (though there's a murder by facial acupuncture that comes close), the blasphemous elements are rather minimal (hell even Exorcist has that defaced statue), and it's got one foot in the giallo door, easing the transition for those who are a little strict with their definition of "horror" since several nunsploitation films wouldn't otherwise qualify. Arrow's presentation is outstanding and there are enough goodies to keep you busy if you're a fan, making it a solid package all around. Plus, you can easily find it here in the US, so it's got one up on The Devils!

What say you?


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