Tag Archives: Nuns

362. THE DEVILS (1971)

“There was no better director to learn from. He would always take the adventurous path even at the expense of coherence.”–Derek Jarman on Ken Russell

Must See

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , , Gemma Jones, Dudley Sutton, Michael Gothard, Murray Melvin

PLOT: Father Urbain Grandier is the charismatic spiritual and political leader of the independent city of Loudun; Cardinal Richelieu wants him replaced because he refuses to allow the city’s walls to be torn down. Sister Jeanne, Mother Superior of the town’s convent, is tormented by sexual dreams about Grandier. When Sister Jeanne confesses her fantasies to a priest, Richelieu’s men hatch a plot to frame Grandier as a warlock, and the entire convent is whipped into mass hysteria, becoming convinced they are possessed by devils.

Still from The Devils (1971)

BACKGROUND:

  • Father Grandier and Sister Jeanne, among many other characters in the film, were real people. Grandier was burnt at the stake in 1634 on accusations of practicing witchcraft.
  • The Devils was based on John Whiting’s play “The Devils of Loudun,” which itself was based on Aldous Huxley’s novel of the same title.
  • Ken Russell’s original theatrical cut ran 117 minutes, after the British censors removed an infamous 4-minute sequence known as “the rape of Christ.” The U.S. distributor cut an additional three to six minutes of sex and blasphemy out so that the film could be released with an “R” rating in the States, and that release became the standard version and the only one released on VHS. The longer director’s cut was not seen until 2004, thanks to a restoration effort led by . Russell’s director’s cut has never been issued on home video; the X-rated theatrical cut is the most complete version currently available. Portions of the “rape of Christ” scene are preserved in a BBC documentary called “Hell on Earth” (included on the BFI DVD).
  • A young designed the sets. This was his first feature credit.
  • The Devils is included in Steven Schneider’s “1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die.”
  • The contemporary arguments over the film became so heated that Russell himself attacked critic Alexander Walker on live television, hitting him on the head with a copy of his negative review.
  • Warner Brothers has steadfastly refused to release the movie on DVD, but they did eventually sublicense it to the British Film Institute for overseas release.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Even with the “rape of Christ” scene excised, what sticks out in The Devils are the scenes of possessed nuns, some with shaved heads, whipping off their habits and cavorting in the nude, writhing, self-flagellating, jerking off votive candles, and waggling their tongues in an obscene performance. For a single, and singular, image that encapsulates the themes and shock level of The Devils, however, try the vision of Vanessa Redgrave seductively licking at the wound in Oliver Reed’s side when she imagines him as Christ descended from the cross to ravage her.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Crocodile parry; Christ licking; John Lennon, exorcist

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Nobody, but nobody, shoots a nun orgy like Ken Russell. Aside from a dream sequence or two, The Devils is a historically accurate account of a real-life medieval witch hunt—but Russell emphasizes only the oddest and most perverse details, so that the movie itself becomes as hysterical and overwrought as the frenzy it condemns. Truth, in this case, is at least as strange as fiction.


Original U.S. release trailer for The Devils

COMMENTS: Viewed from a great distance, The Devils is a classical Continue reading 362. THE DEVILS (1971)

CAPSULE: THE BOOK OF BIRDIE (2017)

DIRECTED BY: Elizabeth E. Schuch

FEATURING: Ilirida Memedovski, Kitty Fenn, Suzan Crowley, Kathryn Browning

PLOT: A young woman is brought to a convent to protect her from an unspecified danger. There, she explores both her emerging spirituality and womanhood.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Schuch’s movie relies heavily on a theological flavor of “magic realism”. While it explores various fringe topics—(clerical) sisterhood, puberty, paganism, and suicide—using a variety of stylish techniques, it doesn’t push boundaries as far as it should, and ultimately doesn’t adequately explore the various narrative avenues it goes down.

COMMENTS: Director Elizabeth Shuch cannot be accused of lacking in ideas. With her directorial debut, she touches on many. So many that I feel compelled to type (some of) them out, bullet-style:

  • The intersection between Femininity and Christianity.
  • The intersection between Christianity and Paganism.
  • The intersection between Paganism and Femininity.
  • Coming of age, first love, and suicide.

Throughout The Book of Birdie, Shuch touches on all these topics while maintaining a precarious narrative thread.

Our story begins in a dying convent consisting of a dozen or so nuns. Young Birdie (Ilirida Memedovski) has been brought there for the protection and (ostensible) comfort that a life of wholesome religiosity may bring. Birdie integrates with her new wards slowly, but surely, while also making acquaintance (then friendship, then love) with Julia, the daughter of the convent’s groundskeeper. Birdie learns prayers, attends services, and sees the ghosts of two dead nuns haunting the convent. After staining her bedding with a heavy menstrual flow, things become slightly more unreal.

Arthouse film techniques abound. There are long shots of Birdie’s entrancingly dark eyes. Ephemeral lighting illuminates the inside of the compound while the bleak sun saturates the outdoors. Stylized animations of symbolic imagery are seamlessly integrated. While the camera-work and editing flirt along the edge of heavy-handedness, they never fall into parody. The nun characters—both alive and dead—help to keep the film grounded in the reality of this hollowed-out haven. One enthusiastic nun in particular stands out. She confides her aspirations to Birdie: “I knew Jesus was the only man for me when I had my First Communion. I felt the wafer sizzle in my mouth and I felt him calling to me. Everything I’ve done since then has been to prepare me for a spiritual life. I want to be the best.” Unfortunately, it is Birdie who experiences the transcendence that this nun strives for—without even trying. The cause (effect?) of this transcendence brings me to a needful observation.

This film has a lot of blood in it. A lot of menstrual blood. It shows up in specks around the chapel, it shows up in trails, and it shows up in the small vials that Birdie fills with it and on occasion drinks from. She also crafts what I can only describe as a “fetus fetish” from porridge and stores it in vinegar. This entity comes to life on occasion, as does a statue of Christ—as do her reproductive organs, which we see escaping her body and flying off, like an angel. There is a mountain of symbolism of which, with my limited catechism, I can only understand fleeting hints.

The important question , though, is whether this works as a movie. To that I say, “Yes… mostly.” The performances are all tip-top and the limited scenery provides a real sense of a derelict, isolated haven. And, I suppose, the narrative moves from one point to the next, with a beginning, middle, and end. However, I can’t help but feel that this movie is like an empty Chinese puzzle box. Fascinating to watch unfold, but ultimately yielding nothing. An ambiguously tragic life is explored with ambiguously theological symbols to bring us to an ambiguous, but tragic, ending. All spirit and no flesh, perhaps?

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a weird, glittery, feminine fever dream.”–Lindsay Pugh, Woman in Revolt (festival screening)

LIST CANDIDATE: DARK WATERS (1993)

Temnye vody

DIRECTED BY:  Mariano Baino

FEATURING: Louise Salter, Venera Simmons, Mariya Kapnist

PLOT: Seeking answers to her own past, woman investigates an ancient holy order that guards a mysterious relic at a convent on an island.

Still from Dark Waters (1993)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Because the cute little Gollum guy on the ferryman’s boat squatting there chomping on raw meat is only the 80th or so most unforgettable image from this atmospheric dive into religious horror. That’s religion as in “Cthulhu,” not just “Virgin Mary.” Also, the nuns in this movie deserve to be the standard against which all creepy (not to mention crispy) nuns are compared. So throw the Gollum a bone: “He keeps the other freaks away!”

COMMENTS: We admit it’s cheap to invoke the name of Master David Lynch (may peace be upon the name of the prophet) up front in a review, but it bears mentioning that one of Lynch’s rules of creating atmosphere is “shut up and let the scenery do the talking.” After a brief opening narration cutting to a Spaghetti Western prop-store cattle skull, Dark Waters keeps its mouth shut throughout its eight minute prologue, by which time three people have died, while we hang on mute scenes of the rituals surrounding a demonic-looking holy relic. This silence, of course, forces us to refer to Alejandro Jodorowsky (our prayers with confidence are placed in his hands). Cut to 20 years later, and Elizabeth (Louise Salter) is riding the “bus of fools,” and later a rowboat manned by a Charon stand-in, on her way to an island to confront this religious order and find out why her departed father supported it.  The mysterious order is harsh and unwelcoming, and things get scary fast. Great, now we have to name-drop The Wicker Man too. What we’re saying here is, even if Baino doesn’t prove worthy of being honored alongside the weird director greats, he has certainly walked their path.

Anyway, we’re in for the good old-fashioned Gothic interpretation of Catholic (or is it Orthodox?) faith. You bet your sweet bippy there will be spectral nuns chanting in Latin, self-flagellation with snapping whips, and a slow lingering camera pan over a crucifix every other minute (yes, Ken Russel, we thought of you too). The convent is all candlelit and leaky amid a solid movie-long rainstorm, with every color an earth tone as the constant drip of water threatens to snuff out the candles. When Elizabeth flashes her pack of Marlboros here, it’s like an aberration from another universe. Not that the nuns will mind, as most of them are blind, apparently from exposure to the bad mojo on the island. Mother Superior (Mariya Kapnist), seems to get her counsel from these blind, mummy-like nuns while she herself keeps her vision. She assigns Sarah (Venera Simmons) to see to her guest (stuck here because the boat only runs once a week), even while bluntly telling Elizabeth that it’s none of her damn business what the convent does. But we get plenty of hints anyway, from Elizabeth’s nightmares that reel down catacomb corridors lit with enough candles to smoke out Hades, to Elizabeth turning straight to the Book of Revelation to read about the Apocalypse. Elizabeth and Sarah trespass in cavern and attic alike to explore the mystery, but they have to be careful. Blind or not, the nuns will kill to protect their secrets. Of course we have an idea where this is going, but that doesn’t matter, because while the whole plot can be spoiled in two sentences, how we get there is much more important.

For a movie with such a taciturn script, it is a good thing that Dark Waters makes such excellent use of the visual side of the medium. Every frame is composed to etch itself onto your eyeballs, every note of music designed to stretch your last nerve to the breaking point, every ray of light muted into a dramatic chiaroscuro shadow. Burning crosses wielded by nuns stampeding over hills at night cut to horrific drawings of tentacled monstrosities in tomes of ancient lore. It’s so heavy on atmosphere that you don’t watch this movie so much as you lay back and smoke it. If we could pick any bones with Dark Waters, it’s that the film tends to be a little -ish/Dario Argento-like at times, as many shots are there just to gawp at rather than advance the plot. And let’s face it, the story is derivative, equal parts and Italian giallo thrillers, except the nuns here mostly keep their tops on. Waters even invokes The Haunting of Hill House, since Elizabeth is a stranger visiting this strange place while having deep, but inscrutable, connections to it, and having a woman her age as her sole confidant. But the individual details push this effort far above its roots.

This is Mariano Baino’s sole feature length credit, with nothing else to his name but for a few shorts. With this nearly-undiscovered gem for a freshman effort, will we even begin to apprehend what he could do for an encore? It’s been 24 years since Dark Waters came out, so we may never know what else this visionary is capable of.

Dark Waters was re-released by Severin Films on DVD, and for the first time on Blu-ray (sold separately) in 2017. The elaborate edition comes with directorial commentary and hours of special features.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…may not get everything right, but with Elder gods, inbred fishing villages, and a striking visual aesthetic that emphasizes the dark, barely glimpsed corners where evil might well lurk, it comes pretty darn close to catpuring that old Lovecraftian magic on film… the director’s painterly mise-en-scene often reminded me of one of my favorite directors, Jean Rollin, and his dreamlike, borderline surreal symbolism.”–The Vicar of VHS, Mad Mad Mad Mad Movies (DVD)

OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:

Dark Waters (1993 film) – The film’s entry at Cthulhu-Wiki

23. THE LAIR OF THE WHITE WORM (1988)

“This fearful worm would often feed on cows and lamb and sheep,
And swallow little babes alive when they lay down to sleep.
So John set out and got the beast and cut it into halves,
And that soon stopped it eating babes and sheep and lambs and calves.”

–Lyrics to “The D’Ampton Worm” from Lair of the White Worm
Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Ken Russell

FEATURING: Amanda Donohoe, Hugh Grant, Catherine Oxenberg, Peter Capaldi, Sammi Davis, Stratford Johns

PLOT:  An archeology student visiting the British countryside digs up an elongated skull he assumes belongs to an dinosaur while excavating the site of a buried convent, now an English bed-and-breakfast run by two young sisters.  Lord James D’Ampton is the boyfriend of one of the sisters, and also the descendant of a legendary D’Ampton who reputedly slew a dragon (the “D’Ampton Worm”) that had terrorized the countryside.  After wintering in climes unknown, slinky and regal Lady March returns to her mansion and discovers the skull, after which strange events begin to transpire…

Still from Lair of the White Worm (1988)

BACKGROUND:

  • Russell’s script was very loosely based on Bram (“Dracula”) Stoker’s 1911 novel, although the similarity almost ends with the shared title.
  • This was Russell’s second horror film in three years after Gothic (1986).
  • Hugh Grant had roles in six films released in 1988, including portrayals of Chopin and Lord Byron.
  • This was Amanda Donohoe’s second starring role in a feature film.  She went on to greater fame when she joined the cast of the hit T.V. show “L.A. Law” in 1990.  Catherine Oxenberg, on the other hand, had made a name for herself on the hit T.V. show “Dynasty,” and this was her first feature role in a theatrical release.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: A 30 second hallucination sequence featuring Roman soldiers raping nuns before a cross on which a monstrous worm slithers over a crucified Jesus while a topless blue vampire woman looks on joyfully, waggling her tongue.  The scene is dressed up in lurid colors and performed in front of a deliberately cheesy looking blue-screen inferno.  So over-the-top and parodic that it’s not nearly as offensive as it sounds.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD:  Ken Russell throws a handful of his typically excessive hallucination/dream sequences into what is otherwise a subtle horror parody, creating a minor masterpiece of deliberate camp blooming with ridiculously memorable scenes.

Clip from Lair of the White Worm

COMMENTS:  The one word that immediately comes to mind to describe Ken Russell’s The Continue reading 23. THE LAIR OF THE WHITE WORM (1988)