CAPSULE: KILLER NUN (1979)

Suor Omicidi

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DIRECTED BY: Giulio Berutti

FEATURING: Anita Ekberg, Paola Morra, , Lou Castel, Alida Valli

PLOT: Sister Gertrude, fresh off cancer surgery and crippled by  morphine addiction, experiences a crisis of faith as she finds herself entertaining impure thoughts and harboring murderous feelings.

COMMENTS: What a wonderfully depraved world we live in that could not only be a thing but be so plentiful that it would merit its own Wikipedia entry. The calling carries with it such a rich combination of power and repression, of mystery and denial, of sex and frustration, that it was probably inevitable that it would become a cinematic fetish object. So, now that we’ve got it, what do we do with it?

Killer Nun never comes up with a particularly satisfying answer to that question. Which is odd, because all the pieces seem to be in place. We’ve got grisly murders. We’ve got deliciously nasty Bible readings. We’ve got Paola Morra ready to walk around the room completely starkers for no particular reason. Heck, look at that title. It sure feels like we’ve got all the elements in place for a delightfully smutty evening at the movies. And yet it never clears that very low bar.

Ultimately, the filmmakers aren’t willing to get down in the mud, which would be fine if they didn’t spend so much time showing off their rich and bountiful mud fields. Consider a scene where the central character, a nun with a history of drug addiction, goes into town, swaps out her habit for a dress, scopes out a local bar, and picks up a man for a no-strings-attached assignation. What a bold sacrilege this presents. Is this a swipe at the restrictive morals of the Church? A signifier of a mind resolutely on the road to madness? No, it’s just something to do, a scene that any self-respecting giallo is supposed to have, and it never comes up again. And that’s Killer Nun’s problem in a nutshell. It’s brought all the accoutrements of trash, but it’s not willing to do the work. I mean, for crying out loud, to cast Joe Dallesandro in your movie as a straight-laced model of propriety without a trace of irony is some kind of malpractice.

So thank heavens for Anita Ekberg, who is the only thing in the film that works on either side of the line. With her piercing blue eyes surrounded by ninja-star lashes, her Sister Gertrude cuts an imposing figure as she marches through the halls and practically bullies the strange variety of patients into every morning salutation and evening vespers. This lends potency to her own loss of control, because she knows that’s all that’s keeping her from being purely cruel. When she’s on the screen, accompanied by Alessandro Alessandroni’s hyperactive score with its wailing theremin and sinister plucked strings summoning bad vibes, Killer Nun flirts with the kind of low art it promises.

The Mother Superior’s declaration that “It’s a nun’s vocation to suffer” is as much a mission statement as the movie has. But it also regrets putting its heroine through that suffering, and that split personality makes Killer Nun a misguided and dull watch. Get thee to a more interesting nunnery.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…one doesn’t really watch KILLER NUN for its wrenching drama. No, the true pleasures to be found here are gleefully grotesque and often hilariously cruel…. A remarkable, macabre and truly mad movie…”–Chris Alexander, Alexander on Film (Blu-ray)

(This movie was nominated for review by Phoenix, who argued ” I found it to be surprisingly disturbing and effective. Some of its themes are sexual repression and lesbianism. And it’s hilarious. But weird.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

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