Sometimes you're just in the mood for a movie about killer nuns. And, as such films go, The Killer Nun (Suor Omicidi, 1978) delivers the goods. This sub-sub genre of nuns-gone-mad is occasionally referred to as "nunsploitation," allegedly spurred by Ken Russell's notorious 1971 film The Devils, though its recurring themes can be seen in films as early as the Powell/Pressburger Black Narcissus (1947). The Italian-made The Killer Nun seems more an extension of that country's popular giallo genre, those uniquely Italian mystery-thrillers so popular in the '60s and '70s but until recently unknown in the U.S. It's definitely not a horror movie, though it does have what by 1970s standards are gruesome and graphic murders.
Like its title, The Killer Nun is bluntly, nakedly exploitative, but also not without a measure of intelligence and craftsmanship. The picture seems to take place outside Italy -- at one point Francs change hands at a bar -- suggesting that to get around Italian censorship laws its salacious tale was moved to France, just as Mario Bava's groundbreaking I Vampiri had been 20 years before. (The film supposedly was inspired by a real-life series of murders in Belgium.)
At a convent-hospital, Sister Gertrude (Anita Ekberg) is the longtime supervisor of that hospital's psychiatric ward. Recently operated on to remove a benign brain tumor, she remains convinced she's dying of cancer. She has constant headaches and black-outs and, making matters much more, has become addicted to morphine, eventually hocking a ring to feed her, er, habit.
There's not a lot of characterization here. From the get-go Sister Gertrude is like Faye Dunaway in Mommie Dearest. One minute she's all smiles and the next she's petulantly stomping on the false teeth of an elderly patient, smashing the fake choppers to bits. Much of the film consists of Sister Gertrude losing her cool, abusing some helpless patient, followed by a scene where she paces a room, wrings her hands while breathlessly asking rhetorically, "What made me do such a terrible thing?!"
Eventually, patients start turning up dead, one after another, usually in some grisly fashion. Connected somehow to all this is Sister Mathieu (Paola Morra, Italian Playboy Playmate of the Month for September 1978), who is of course madly in love with Sister Gertrude, her roommate. Like all nuns I'm sure, they sleep in the nude, occasionally bolting from their beds to stand seductively among their sheer, lacey bed-curtains.
When countries with active film industries attempt to imitate Hollywood blockbusters, such as the Italian-made Jaws rip-off Tentacles -- a film released the same year as The Killer Nun -- the results can be disastrous. Countries like Italy, Japan, and Germany have never had Hollywood's deep pockets, and each country's best talent often wound up working in their respective genre pictures. The result of this is that, for instance, Japanese crime films tend to be a lot more intelligent than American movies of the same budget level, and Italian giallo pictures, while following certain genre conventions, tend to be written and directed with greater care than cheap American thrillers. The Killer Nun may be, conceptually at least, crassly exploitive, but is both technically well done and has flashes of imagination. All told, it's an entertaining thriller for those inclined to watch such pictures. It's predictable overall and its bright interiors snuff out a lot of potential suspense, but at 82 minutes director Giulio Berruti keeps us interested and, once in a while, it's mildly creepy and surprising.
The picture was something of a vehicle for Swedish beauty Ekberg, who by 1978 was long past her sexpot days, though the film seems unaware of this. As a nun the focus naturally falls to the actress's face, especially the eyes which in this case are caked with mascara, and wrinkly with heavy eyelids. Though hidden under white robes that suggest a Red Cross tent, and in other scenes obscured in black dresses against dark backgrounds, there was no hiding Ekberg's ballooning weight (which reached its alarming zenith in Fellini's Intervista) and late middle-age. Mostly she resembles a broken-down tart, and you can almost smell the tobacco breath during the sex scenes.
Despite this the actress is clearly giving her all, and Paola Morra compensates in the looks department. Genre veteran Alida Valli turns up briefly, as do Lou Castel and Joe Dallesandro, but the film belongs to Ekberg all the way, and like Mommie Dearest it's certainly entertaining, especially for anyone who went to Catholic school or spent time in a Catholic hospital.
Video & Audio
Blue Underground has done its usual fine presentation with The Killer Nun, which is presented in 16:9 anamorphic format with an aspect ratio of 1.85:1. The image is clean but (perhaps inherently) grainy. The color is good and the image bright, however. The opening titles, in English, appear to have been video-supered, apparently using the font of the film's trailer as a guide. One striking and inexplicable flaw is that during the opening titles the image goes completely black for about 18 frames. Near the end of the film there's one scene that abruptly shifts into English-subtitled Italian. However, there's no feature-length Italian audio track option, nor does the DVD include subtitles in any language. The English track is badly dubbed but presented in acceptable mono 2.0 sound.
The centerpiece of supplements is From the Secret Files of the Vatican, a 14-minute interview with director Berruti in 16:9 format. The interview is enlightening and offers evidence to support an intelligence behind the exploitation. Next is an English-language Trailer, also 16:9, that's mainly a collage of all the grisly highlights. Watch it after you've seen the movie. Finally, a fairly extensive Poster & Still Gallery also offers video version box art, pressbook excerpts and the like.
To borrow The Loved One's famous tagline, The Killer Nun has something to offend everyone. Replete with grisly murders, lesbianism, hints of necrophilia, voyeurism, and drug addiction (though curiously, given Ekberg's presence, no gluttony), it's also a well-crafted little thriller -- maybe not a classic of the genre, but entertaining and well-crafted.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Los Angeles and Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf -- The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune. His new book, Cinema Nippon will be published by Taschen in 2005.