The Killer Nun (1979)
by Troy Howarth
D: Giulio Berruti; S: Giulio Berruti and Alberto Rarallo; MP: Anita Ekberg, Paola Morra, Joe Dallessandro, Lou Castel, Massimo Serato, Alida Valli
Sister Gertrude (Anita Ekberg) tries to hide her deteriorating mental state before eventually spiralling into madness and murder…
The ‘nunsploitation’ subgenre found much favor in heavily Catholic countries, notably Italy and Spain, during the 1970s. Inspired, no doubt, by the world wide success (and infamy) of Ken Russell’s masterpiece The Devils (1971), these films sought to explore fetishistic fantasies of what must ‘really’ be going on behind those convent walls. None of the films came close to replicating the impact or quality of Russell’s altogether different picture (which can only be lumped in with these films by default), but a few managed to generate a legitimate frisson or two. This cannot be said of The Killer Nun, which somehow found itslef on the UK’s much trumpeted ‘video nasty’ list, despite a general paucity of sleaze and gore.
Anita Ekberg tops an eclectic cast, and she’s most certainly a long ways from her early career pinacle, dancing in the Trevi Fountain with Marcello Mastroianni in Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita (1959). By this stage in the game, Ekberg had graduated to full ‘cougar’ status, specializing in older sex pot roles which merely sough to capitolize on her image as a sex kitten. Ekberg still proves capable of commanding an audience, but the role requires far more of her than she is capable of giving. An actress with some real dramatic chops might have made Sister Gertrude into a fully realized psychological case study; in Ekberg’s hands, however, it comes off as shrill and melodramatic at best. The actress teases the audience with some near nude views, but for the most part, hysteria is the name of the game – and she approaches this with gusto, if not much in the way of conviction. Paola Morra (Behind Convent Walls) provides the film’s quota of naked flesh, and she certainly is impressive to behold. Like Ekberg, however, the role requires more of the actress than she is able to deliver. Morra goes for broke when required to ratchet up the sex appeal, but her portrayal of the (not so) closet lesbian protege of Ekberg is one note in the extreme. Joe Dallessandro (Blood for Dracula), never the most accomplished of thespians, is required to emote and keep his clothes on – and if his films for Paul Morrissey proved one thing, it’s that he had ample screen presence, but was best when used as something of a hunky prop. This is especially abundant here, with the actor badly miscast as a compassionate doctor who comes across as neither compassionate nor especially knowledgable. Accomplished veterans like Massimo Serato (Don’t Look Now) and Alida Valli (Lisa and the Devil) are on hand to lend some class, but they are given precious little to do.
Director Giulio Berruti had earlier had a hand in writing such cult items as Baba Yaga (1972) and They Have Changed Their Faces (1971), but The Killer Nun would remain the second of only two titles he would direct. His handling of the material is by no means disastrous, but he fails to really energize the proceedings. The pacing is slow, there’s some pseudo-pretentious attempts at bargain basement artisness to distinguish it from the ‘typical’ exploitation film, and apart from one memorably meanspirited sequence (the killer sadistically killing off a victim after torturing her with pins) there’s no real shock value. The ‘twist’ ending is especially feeble, being fairly easy to predict early on.
On the upside, Alessandro Alessandroni contributes a decent soundtrack and the production values are above average. The cinematography by Antonio Maccoppi is professionally realized, and if the film lacks much in the way of atmosphere, at least it comes off as polished. The Killer Nun is by no means the worst of its subgenre, but it doesn’t offer up the juicy sensationalism that makes some of its less distinguished progeny so much fun to watch; and at the end of the day, a sense of fun is precisely what this picture is lacking.
Blue Underground continues to unleash some of their less exciting catalogue titles to blu ray, but at least the upgrade in video quality is noticable. The Killer Nun looks far more detailed and vivid than it did on DVD, though it does suffer from some of the strange ‘grain’ issues typical of some of their other Italian BD releases, including The Stendhal Syndrome and Django. The print is in very good shape overall, though a handful of shots flutter noticably, and colors appear to be accurately rendered. The film is fully uncut and the image is sharp and nicely detailed. The grain issue is most noticable during the darker scenes; since much of the film unfolds in brighter lighting, however, this isn’t too much of a distraction.
Audio options include the English and Italian dubs, both in dts-HD mono. The English track is wooden as hell, and none of the actors provide their own voices – not even Dallessandro. The Italian dub is a bit better, and it does appear to at least retain Valli’s distinctive voice, but in the end it’s basically a matter of personal preference. Both tracks are in good shape, with obvious source-and-age-related limitations. English subs are included for the Italian track, as are English captions for the deaf and hard of hearing.
Extras include a trailer, a poster and still gallery and a featurette interview with writer/director Berruti. Berruti looks back on the film with fondness, though he seems to be rather bitter on the way the film was received and how his subsequent career panned out.
A mediocre nunsploitation item gets a decent upgrade from BU.
Film: ** out of *****
Video: *** out of *****
Audio: *** out of *****
Extras: *** out of *****