The Video Nasties #74 – The Killer Nun (1979, Giulio Berutti)

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‘Sister Gertrude – it is a nun’s vocation to suffer!’

Oh my god, another film based on ‘true events!’ The 70s must have been a frightening time for everyone. This one claims to have taken place ‘in a Central European country not many years ago,’ which is vague but at least more believable than Don’t Go Near The Park’s mad claims.

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The Killer Nun is part of one of horror’s smallest sub-genres, the Nunsploitation movie. Most of these films were Italian, as the genre combines two of every Italian filmmaker’s favourite things – hand-wringing Catholic guilt and the potential for lesbianism. The Killer Nun excels on both of those counts, often at the expense of the horror.

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We follow Sister Gertrude, played by former Euro-babe Anita Ekberg, a far cry from La Dolce Vita. She’s actually pretty good in a role that is all over the place, gamely playing along like other faded Euro stars Ursula Andress in Prisoner of the Cannibal God and Elke Sommer in I Miss You, Hugs and Kisses. And the role is a juicy one, no doubt about that! Sister Gertrude is addicted to morphine following a brain tumour operation and slowly losing her faith. She’s pretty unsympathetic – she totally fucks over the head doctor and gets him sacked, then smashes a sweet old lady’s dentures in a rage – but we never really believe she is the killer that stalks the wards. Her best scene is when she goes into town and picks up a man in a bar for some cheeky sex in an alleyway. Her face as she experiences human contact for the first(?) time really sells it, and the film looks for a moment like it’s going to be a female empowerment tale of a cloistered nun turning her back on religion and finding herself.

But then it all goes totally bonkers.

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There are some movies that I can honestly say aren’t very good, but are worth seeing for one scene. The Killer Nun isn’t quite that – I’d say it’s an okay film that is worth seeing for three scenes. The first is an insane dream sequence/murder, soundtracked by the greatest piece of music that Ennio Morricone never wrote. Alessandro Alessandroni gives us a psychedelic acoustic guitar freakout, over shots of Ekberg hovering over a nude male corpse, seemingly deciding whether or not to touch his penis. At the same time, she is lying in bed in the grip of morphine withdrawal, while a man is murdered in front of her with a lamp. It’s a marvelous scene that grabs the film by the habit and gives it a good shake.

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If it never quite reaches those giddy heights again, it’s not for lack of trying. There’s a wild murder in a thunderstorm, where the weapon of choice is – wait for it – cotton wool! Then, the new doctor is introduced, and who better to play him than handsome Brooklyn thug Joe Dallesandro, last seen playing a peasant in Flesh For Frankenstein! Sadly, he’s dubbed here, thus depriving us of his wonderful thick accent. He’s part of a brilliant scene towards the end that a lot of other films could learn from. It’s a typical boring exposition scene, the kind that I’ve seen in nearly every film so far. It seems the editor must have thought that too, and so intercuts it with the third murder scene! This is an incredibly brutal sequence that actually had me squirming. It’s not too bloody or gory, but involves pins being inserted into eyeballs and lips being slashed with scalpels. And that, ladies and jellyspoons, is how you do exposition.

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Inevitably, the third act massively drops the ball and the film limps along to the expected conclusion. There’s a wonderfully insufferable scene of a man crawling up a flight of stairs for what feels like forever, and Alida Valli from Suspiria pops up to flash that delicious smile of hers, but it’s a bit of a bust. The chilling final shot offers the film some redemption, but the damage is done.

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It’s another film that doesn’t really belong on the Nasties, though there’s no shortage of religious nutters out there who probably wanted it banned for its sacrilegious portrayal of nuns. I pity these people, for they know not the glory of the killer lesbian nuns.

Let us pray for them.

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