Blue Underground // 1978 // 82 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Chief Counsel Rob Lineberger (Retired) // November 26th, 2004
From the secret files of the Vatican!
Before we dive into this bipolar nunsploitation flick, the Court would like the record to show that Giulio Berruti, director of Suor Omicidi (or Killer Nun, as we know it), has always detested the above tag line. Killer Nun doesn't come from any secret files, and it has nothing to do with the Vatican. This sort of marketing hyperbole gives nunsploitation films a bad rap with one of the world's dominant religions. (Or submissive; I'm not Catholic so I won't weigh in on that issue.)
Sister Gertrude (Anita Ekberg, La Dolce Vita) is a cold yet competent nun who supports the head of psychiatry in a European hospital. This hospital is a vague cross between retirement home, convent, and insane asylum, with "loonies" and "oddballs" in every corner. Sister Gertrude recently had a brain tumor removed, and according to medical science she is in tip-top shape. Somehow, these medical experts overlooked her blatant addiction to morphine, frequent blackouts, "killer" headaches, and propensity to sweat profusely while watching her patients writhe in agony. Coincidentally, patients at the Memorial Hospital for Unbalanced and Retired Comrades begin dying in gruesome ways.
Not everyone is blithely unaware of Sister Gertrude's crackup. The band of quirky misfits that reside in the ward are observant enough to realize that each unexpected death coincides with one of Sister Gertrude's "Hopping up, blacking out, and murmuring to herself" spells. Additionally, Sister Gertrude's doe-eyed and sexually muddled roomie, Sister Mathieu (Paola Morra, Sex Life in a Convent), has noticed the odd coincidence or two (such as the dead man's entrails wrapped up in one of Sister Gertrude's bloody head garments).
We all know that Sister Gertrude is a stone-cold bitch, but is she really depraved enough to commit murder? If so, will her evil ways corrupt the young woman who shares her bed? Will the studly new doctor at the M.H.U.R.C. catch on quickly enough to avert tragedy -- or will the Killer Nun claim another victim?
The Killer Nun experience is bipolar. On one end of the spectrum, we have a woodenly acted snoozer with no central conflict and a perfectly linear plotline. Watching this movie is like watching a crippled man drag himself up a flight of stairs one step at a time. If you're wondering where I got that analogy, it is an actual scene from Killer Nun that consumes several minutes. If the man were desperate to reach the top to save the life of a damsel in distress, that would be something. But no, he's just going up the stairs, and we're watching him, and we know that the moment he reaches the top someone will be waiting. Let's say the whole stair crawling thing is antidramatic.
On the other end of the spectrum is white-hot sexiness. Well, maybe not white-hot, but definitely warmer than a reheated toaster strudel. This is eroticism done properly: The featured breasts are natural and interesting, and they aren't bathed in artificial blue light. Killer Nun is old school erotica, and by "old school" I mean "back when filmmakers actually showed sexy things on screen without cutting away every two seconds." There are no cutaways to obese, pimply men on treadmills or starving children playing marbles with old crack vials or whatever nonsexy footage is typically intercut with the good stuff. (Why do "erotic" films do that?)
Let's get back to the unfortunately dull reality that comprises most of this flick. Yes, Killer Nun is low budget, and it is part of the short-lived "nunsploitation" movement, so how much quality could we expect? I don't know, but a subplot or two might have spiced things up. The single plot moves forward in erratic fits and spurts. We're enduring a rather painful string of scenes, such as people walking down long streets or crawling up stairs or what have you, and there isn't anything else going on. Suddenly, we're into the next scene, where we discover two bloody corpses and see Sister Gertrude mumbling to herself, "I'm not a murderess! I'm not a murderess!" The slower scenes could use a dose of this shocking weirdness, while the unexplained forays into shocking weirdness could have used some of the boring scenes' decorum. I guess what I'm driving at here is the pacing sucks.
A compelling performance or two can alleviate the burden of poor pacing. There is one compelling actress in the lot, and her name is not Anita Ekberg. In the included interview, Giulio Berruti says that he loves Anita Ekberg. That explains why she's in the film, but her presence does little to buoy the picture. I'd like to say this delicately without sounding like a chauvinistic ass: The middle-aged Anita is miscast as a racy nun living on the edge. Her role practically screams "exploitation siren," which means gratuitous nudity and the recklessness of youth. The former Miss Sweden's looks are still comely, but the heavily caked mascara does not flatter her. Berruti is constantly using overcoats and bed sheets to disguise the effects of the years on Ekberg's physique. I applaud his sensitivity and restraint. Berruti is doing what I wish all Hollywood directors would do, which is not overlooking middle-aged women for roles that involve sex. But if the actress is self-conscious about the role or you have to truncate the more daring scenes, it hurts the picture. Instead, Ekberg's would-be erotic moments of glory become painful exercises in prop manipulation.
I'm not just talking about nudity here. Ekberg lacks the vitality or emotional range to sell us on a "woman on the edge" act. Her self-incriminating cries of woe are stilted. She screams, "Why did I hurt those people? Why? Oh, boo-hoo-hoo, why am I so twisted and evil?" but she might as well be ordering pizza.
Fortunately, Paola Morra saves the day. Her scenes are not extensive, but when she's on the screen we're paying attention. Her eyes radiate a strange mixture of innocence and anger. She fawns over the older woman as she unwittingly aids her downward spiral. In a couple of scenes we see tortured emotional outbursts from Sister Mathieu, and we can practically feel the flush from her cheeks and taste the salty heat of her tears. She is confused and capable of bizarre actions, and we just can't read her. She's the girl you can't help but reach out to, only to find that you've inherited more than you bargained for.
This raw, nearly feral charisma fuels her sex scenes, which brings us back to the bipolar nature of Killer Nun. Paola Morra is hot, she's luscious, she's naked and radiant. Sister Gertrude shames Sister Mathieu, and we feel the shame and the erotic thrill that goes with it. Later, Sister Mathieu collapses in a puddle at the feet of a studly young doctor, nuzzling at his zipper with her tongue while mewling in lust. Though we see very little in terms of exposed skin, the situation is more erotic than entire Cinemax flicks. Sister Mathieu's primal antics are supplemented by orgiastic trysts between inmates and other eroto-horrific goodies, which gives Killer Nun a healthy score in the depraved sex department.
This is an appropriately random time to mention Killer Nun's heritage. The story is based on actual events, which is slightly disturbing. Apparently, nuns did have the power to command people to pray for hours, and old people had their dentures cruelly smashed underfoot, and convents had padded cells and sedatives on hand. Nevertheless, I question Killer Nun's veracity as a religious exposé. I know some people who were nuns during that time, and the real goings-on are much more normal. Whether it was because of the horror of the actual events or Berruti's exploitation of them, Killer Nun was "banned outright in Britain."
The shock of the material and the downward spiral depicted will not elicit much excitement from modern audiences, although a handful of images are horrifically poetic. For example, there is a realistic scene of an eyeball being pierced that stands up well to the best effects in modern horror films. Had the scene been placed into some form of context, it might have had more power. On the other hand, Killer Nun gets the sex thing just right. It may not be explicit, but it is scandalous and naughty.
I once said, "Blue Underground is a company that truly comprehends the DVD format." That statement was motivated by Blue Underground's fantastic attention to detail, such as spoiler warnings in the featurettes, dazzling extras, and other discriminating details. I still hold Blue Underground in high regard, but this release lacks some of that panache.
The included poster and still gallery is a typically fine effort with interesting material, and the trailer is fine, and there is a fine interview, so the extras are fine. However, there weren't spoiler warnings before the interview, and there wasn't much of a sense of the hoopla surrounding the original film's release. Why was it banned in Britain? What did the Vatican say in rebuttal? What were the actual events that the movie was based on? Despite some glancing references in the interview, this ground is not covered. I know Blue Underground is capable of providing such back story because they used to do so regularly.
Like many of Blue Underground's obscure movies, Killer Nun was transferred from a dubbed copy of the film. This is my biggest complaint about Killer Nun, although I imagine that if an Italian version were available they would have used it. Oddly enough, a couple of scenes in the movie are in the native Italian track, which made me long for the original language even more.
Technically speaking, the transfer is clean. There is little to no edge enhancement, and the focus is sharp. Colors are stable but not particularly rich; in fact, the movie seems yellowish and faded. There were a couple of instances of jitter, but they were short lived. The grain is pleasantly noticeable without being overpowering. Given its age, the transfer is sharper and cleaner than you'd hope for. I wasn't impressed with the dubbed mono soundtrack, though. It sounded dull and compressed, which is typical of studio dubs. The music isn't engaging. I can say this: As an audio purist, I applaud Blue Underground for not feeling pressure to provide a remixed surround track. They have done so in the past to great effect, but if a movie was released in mono and isn't driven by sound, a mono track is fine.
On the plus side, Killer Nun features killer nuns. More precisely, it features murderous, sexually depraved, heartless, drug-addicted, hard-drinking, promiscuous, mentally unstable nuns -- and their breasts. You know what you're going into this film for, and you get it. On the minus side, Killer Nun features a listless story, maddening pacing, a miscast sexpot past her prime, a couple of technical glitches, and a wretched dub.
Are you kidding? A killer nun? Guilty! And yet...oddly captivating at times.
Review content copyright © 2004 Rob Lineberger; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Blue Underground
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 82 Minutes
Release Year: 1978
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* "From the Secret Files of the Vatican" -- Interview with Co-Writer/Director Giulio Berruti
* Theatrical Trailers
* Poster & Still Gallery
* Official Site