George W. Bush squeezed by John Kerry in the 2004 Presidential Election on the votes of millions of born again evangelical Bible-quotin’ churchified Christians. So how will we be celebrating in the first DVD review since Election Day? By discussing one of the most sacrilegious horror flicks to get near the ol’ DVD player in a long time, that’s how. Now who’s out of touch, America?
Killer Nun was part of a wave of popular “nunsploitation” movies made in the 1970s in which convents were rockin’ with sisters engaging in all kinds of vile behavior, with or without the help of demonic influence. The genre includes such titles as Flavia the Heretic, Satanico Pandemonium, and Jess Franco’s Love Letters of a Portuguese Nun. Roots of the genre go back at least as far as 1962’s Monica di Monza, an account of how a mother superior’s affair in the 17th century spawned a bastard daughter, murder, scandal, torture, a sequel, several remakes, and many imitators, each more outlandish than the last. Things really heated up in the early 1970s with the production of Ken Russell The Devils and of course The Exorcist, which made organized religion a rich breeding ground for horror flicks.
Nunsploitation pictures have been made all over the world, so why aren’t we more familiar with here in the USA? Despite a willingness to indulge in religion-based horrors in hits like The Omen, American distributors balked at offending Catholics further with unseemly depictions of church officials, and few of these movies were imported to U.S. theaters. Though many were produced in heavily Catholic Italy, like most of their horror movies they were intended almost exclusively for distribution outside the country.
Like most nunsploitation pictures, this one claims to be based on fact, though the actual case isn’t any less vague than that it took place “in a Central European country not many years ago.” Anita Ekberg (Miss Sweden of 1950 and star of La Dolce Vita) stars as Sister Gertrude, a nurse in a Catholic hospital where most of the nuns are beautiful and all of the patients are disgusting. Recovering from the removal of a tumor, Gertrude has another kind of habit – she’s addicted to morphine and subject to bouts of erratic behavior. At dinner she freaks out and destroys an old lady’s dentures!
Gertrude is certain that her psychotic episodes are due to illness, but her x-rays prove she’s healthy. Seeing her roommate suffering from anguish and paranoia, Sister Mathieu (Paola Morra) destroys the evidence and confesses her love to Gertrude. This allows more time for Gertrude’s mental problems to go undiagnosed, and when Dr. Poirret (Massimo Serato of Don’t Look Now) won’t refill her prescription, she steals from patients to finance her habit – and other urges – in town. She picks up extra kicks out of uniform by seducing a playboy amid the eye-popping décor of a funky ‘70s bar.
Back at the hospital, she shoots up and hallucinates about bloody brain surgery and necrophilia, then bludgeons a patient to death with a lamp and throws him out a window to make it look like suicide. She manages to frame another patient for her next murder, but when the patients begin to rebel against her abuses, a young doctor (Warhol discovery Joe Dallesandro) begins to suspect her. After she tortures and kills a suspected witness with needles and scalpels, the police finally begin to catch on, but Sister Gertrude gets a few more horrible crimes in before her final crack-up.
Ekberg was 46 when Killer Nun was made, but could still qualify for the “bombshell” category, and flashes her flesh without shame. However, her high-strung performance is a scream – she chews up every bit of scenery, and during her “love scenes” sounds like she’s suffering a bout of acid reflux. Director Giulio Berruti ( who cameos as a priest) presents his story with a minimum of spook show fuss, preferring to let events play out against white-on-white sets and let his editing and quirky music by Allesandro Alessandroni (The Devil’s Nightmare) create tension and atmosphere.
Blue Underground gives those visuals a vibrant, nicely framed transfer, with only the grain on some of the walls giving them a bit of trouble. The Dolby mix of the mono soundtrack is more of a problem, with typically low dialogue and loud music. Some footage not included in the English dubbed version is translated via subtitles.
There’s also a widescreen theatrical trailer, an image gallery, Berruti appears on camera for a 14-minute interview, which is unnecessarily interrupted by clips now and then. He explains how he came to the project, gives a bit of background on the actual crimes that inspired the film, talks about how he convinced former sex kitten Ekberg to take the role, how he wrote a fake script so they could get away with shooting at a real convent, and reveals that make-up f/x man became a psycho killer!