As a relative newcomer to both the ouvre of the notorious Joe D'Amato and that peculiar sub-sub genre of "nunsploitation" - movies, that is, about naughty nuns - this reviewer was intrigued but ultimately disappointed by Images in a Convent (Immagini di un convento, 1979), a two-disc extravaganza from Media Blasters. Where Killer Nun had entertainingly mixed in elements from the Italian giallo genre to good effect, Images of the Convent is mostly soft-core porn, an oddball mix of Pasolini's Il Decameron (1971), Euro-eroticism like Emmanuelle (1974), with a flourish pinched from The Exorcist (1973) at the end, all built around the flimsiest of storylines.
Hot-blooded Countess Isabella di Lignate (Paola Senatore) is left in care of the Santa Fiora Convent after it's discovered that she's been having an affair with her uncle, Don Ascanio. (At least I think that's the set-up; the film isn't entirely clear about this.) Isabella immediately defies the pious Mother Superior (Aiche Nana) by flashing her breasts, and later conspires with various nuns to escape. Although the Countess's influence corrupts this House of God even further, it's clear that several nuns already lust after one another, and soon after Isabella's arrival, Sister Lacinia (Paola Maiolini) sneaks into her cell and brazenly cops a feel while Isabella enjoys an erotic dream. Pretty soon much of the nunnery is consumed by the pleasures of the flesh, and Mother Superior sends for Padre Arnaldo (spaghetti Western veteran Donald O'Brien) to exorcise what she believes to be the Devil's influence from the convent.
Exactly what's going on between all the sex scenes is muddled. We're told that the convent was built atop a pagan ritual site, and a Pan-like statue of the Devil lurks about ominously in the convent's garden. A wandering artist, Guido Bencio (Angelo Arquilla, not Donald O'Brien, as listed in the IMdB) is reluctantly brought wounded into the convent, and the very '70s hunk temps several of the nuns. In some scenes he claims to be an atheist who pooh-poohs any suggestion of Satan's influence on the convent, while in others he's clearly the Devil in disguise. Bitchy Isabella acts as some sort of catalyst as well, but how all this is supposed to come together is unknown.
Production-wise, the film is neither better nor worse than most Italian features from this period. It's a low-budget affair but not shoddy, and looks more expensive than the Mexican-made Satanico Pandemonium (La Sexorcista). The sex is more explicit, with tighter close-ups of women's pubic region, and overall the film is paced liked a porno movie, with long and often gratuitous sex scenes carefully positioned between bits of narrative.
Toward the end, without warning, the film suddenly crosses over into hardcore porn with a brutal and quite explicit rape scene, the purpose of which from an entertainment and/or dramatic standpoint is unfathomable. One of the nuns, innocently walking through the forest to fetch Padre Arnaldo, is casually assaulted by scummy bandits. Anything but erotic, the sequence is repellent and unseemly.
Note: Most sources list running times of between 82-85 minutes, but this version runs almost 94 minutes. It's probably safe to assume this discrepancy is due to the hardcore footage, which likely was excised in most markets.
Video & Audio
Presented in non-anamorphic widescreen, Images of a Convent appears quite murky, partly due to the soft-focus photography, and partly because the transfer is sub-par. One annoying defect is the appearance of what my learned colleagues helpfully identify as displacement artifacts. Most noticeable in shots of long corridors, the image seems to break up into multiple-planes, as if someone had cut out part of the image with scissors, and it appears to "float" about on its own, like an air-hockey puck, independent of the rest of the image. The film is presented in Italian only, with non-removable yellow English subtitles. The mono sound is also a bit on the murky side, but serviceable.
Rather surprisingly, Images in a Convent has been given two-disc special edition treatment. Disc 1 includes the film and a quartet of promos for other Media Blasters titles, of which only Private House of the SS/SS Girls seems to be an actual theatrical trailer.
Disc 2's big draw is Joe D'Amato: Totally Uncut, a 65-minute documentary produced in 1999 by Cinema Bis Communication/Legend. Featuring what may be the last interview with Italy's King of Sleaze (he died that year), the featurette is a career overview loaded with clips, much of it quite explicit. D'Amato's career echoed the trashiness of Jess Franco, and the gradual decline into porn like Ed Wood. D'Amato began his career in the relative mainstream of Italian cinema but, when the European film industries went into decline, he kept busy churning out whatever the market would support. Much of his work combines genres in odd ways, especially Black Emmanuelle and the Last Cannibals (Emanuelle e gli ultimi cannibali, 1977) and Sexy Nights of the Living Dead (Le Notti erotiche dei morti viventi, 1980). Did the raincoat crowd flocking to Emmanuelle movies really want graphic disembowelments mixed with their eroticism? Can one be turned on by sex scenes in between shots of maggot-ridden corpses?
Following a clip from yet another brutal rape scene, D'Amato tells how the actress in question was so traumatized pretending to be assaulted that she sued him for damages. "I had my passport taken for five years," the director explains matter-of-factly. "We eventually paid her so it ended." In discussing Images in a Convent, D'Amato talks, not without a hint of embarrassment, at how he found nuns very sexy, and overall the show and its clips suggest D'Amato found a niche appealing to necrophiliacs, sadomasochists, and other, shall we say, "specialized audiences."
The documentary is fairly good for what it is, but shoddily produced and/or transferred. The film clips often look awful. Most are either sourced from dog-earned, greenish film prints, or video-sourced from what might be gray-market VCDs, what with their extreme and frequent digital breakup, coupled with some major PAL-to-NTSC conversion problems. Like the film, the documentary is presented in Italian with typo-filled English subtitles. Confusing matters further, when the titles of various films are mentioned, the subtitles identify the film in Italian only, without translation.
Also included is a Joe D'Amato Trailer Gallery, which includes 10 theatrical trailers. Black Emmanuelle and the Last Cannibals, Beyond the Darkness (Buio Omega, 1979), and Sexy Nights of the Living Dead are all 16:9 and in good condition, while the remaining previews are 4:3 letterboxed or full frame, and greatly-reduced quality, video-wise: Death Smiles (La Morte ha sorriso all'assassino, 1973), Orgasmo Nero (1980), Anthropophagous - The Beast (Antropophagus, 1980), Caligula 2: The Untold Story (Caligola: La storia mai raccontata; in German only, 1981), Porno Holocaust (Holocausto porno, 1981), Killing Birds (Killing birds - uccelli assassini, 1987), and Hitcher in the Dark (Paura nel buio, 1989). Finally, a Photo Gallery highlights two of Images in a Convent's actresses, but uses photos from other movies and magazine layouts.
Even those with a taste for the offbeat and audacious may find Images in a Convent little more than softcore porn for that specialty audience that finds nasty nuns arousing.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf - The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune and Taschen's forthcoming Cinema Nippon. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.