Friday, February 8, 2008

The Killer Nun (1978): or, Not with a Bang, but a Wimple

"This film is based on actual events that took place in a central European country not many years ago..."

Maybe it's a weakness, but I'm a sucker for true-crime documentaries. So when the splash screen bearing the above disclaimer--or "claimer," more appropriately, I guess--opened the 1978 nunsploitation sleaze-fest The Killer Nun (aka Suor Omicidi, aka Deadly Habits), I was already riveted. What shocking sights awaited my eager, open eyes? What blasphemous images lay in wait, ready to inject themselves into my cortex like morphine into Sister Gertrude's troubled veins? I couldn't know, but I was dying to find out.

86 delirious minutes later I woke up disoriented and raving in the basement of St. Ignacius Hospital, surrounded by a dozen spent ampules, shattered syringes, and piles of suspiciously damp hosiery. What have you done, Sister Gertrude? WHAT HAVE YOU DONE?

Anita Ekberg plays the aforementioned bride of Christ, who is doing her best to please her Holy Spouse working as a nurse at a hospital for the elderly and insane. Okay, maybe they're not all crazy, but they're certainly an eccentric lot: we have the bearded exercise nut with a ribald sense of humor, the wheelchair-bound grandfather with the libido of a teenager, an old woman named Josephine who dresses like an extra from Les Miserables, the beret-wearing atheist Anarchist who seems to have dropped in from a Monty Python sketch, and an aristocratic old woman who calls herself The Baroness and can't understand why the young folk of today don't respect her rank. (After all, as she explains herself: "One of my ancestors went to bed with Napoleon!")

Unfortunately Sister Gertrude's own mental health is by no means assured. Some time ago she was diagnosed with a brain tumor, and despite a successful operation (to which we get some grody flashbacks in an absolutely crazy dream/hallucination sequence later on), she still experiences blackouts and sharp headaches. When her boss the Doctor cuts off her morphine supply, claiming that she's perfectly healthy and doesn't need it any more, Sister Gertrude discovers that the flesh is indeed weak...


What follows is an amazing progression into degradation for the holy woman, done in the style of warm, sticky sleaze that you pretty much have to be an Italian director from the 70s to be able to pull off. Sister Gertrude nearly snuffs one patient for kicks, then allows another to expire through neglect so that she can steal the old woman's wedding ring and take it into the city to sell it for drug money. While in town she also buys some stockings and a garter belt and treats herself to a drink at the bar, where she meets and Tom Brokaw lookalike whom she entices to follow her through the streets in a game of hide-and-go-stalk. When he finally catches up to her in the hallway outside her hotel room, they have an extended against-the-wall knee-trembler that despite the lack of nudity still manages to make the viewer feel very, very dirty. Confession will certainly be a lot more entertaining for Father Donovan this week!

Returning to the hospital with enough morphine to put Bela Lugosi on the disabled list, Sister Gertrude seems to have the world by the tail. The doctor who denied her takes the fall for her misdeeds, her young bodaciously blessed roommate Sister Mathieu is sapphically smitten enough to cover up Sister Gertrude's drug problems (and to keep everything else UN-covered, IYKWIMAITYD), and the inmates are too fearful of her vicious mood swings to cause much fuss. It's salad days at the nunnery, and nothing is better than that. Is it?


Unfortunately the drugs have unpredictable effects. Sister Gertrude starts blacking out, and when she wakes up, people are dead. As the mortality rate climbs the surviving patients start to mumble, and Sister Gertrude comes more and more unhinged. Disturbing images interrupt her sleep--the aforementioned surgery flashbacks, nightmare tableaux of herself kissing naked male corpses in the hospital morgue, and a weird, possibly transsexual woman invading the operating room and kissing Sister Gertrude right on her exposed brain! And if that's not enough, her madness seems to be rubbing off on the old inmates, who get crazier and more suspicious with every passing scene. Patients keep turning up dead...but is Sister Gertrude the murderer?

Finally a new doctor shows up (Andy Warhol film-fave Joe Dallesandro, also notably of Serge Gainsbourg's Je T'Aime...Moi Non Plus) and it all goes downhill from there, leading to more possibly-hallucinated, possibly-real freakouts from Ms. Ekberg, a not-so-startling revelation, and a complete cover-up by the Mother Superior that leaves one wondering how the facts finally came out to make this docudrama possible.


Eschewing the standard medieval setting and devil-worshiping lesbian orgies for a modern milieu and psychological serial killings, The Killer Nun is somewhat unusual in the nunsploitation genre. The aging Ekberg gives a suitably intense performance and still maintains a good deal of the smoldering sensuality that made her a star in the 1950s, despite her slipping looks. The film boasts some nice juicy gore and a few wonderful set-pieces in addition to the show-stopping dream/hallucination sequence--including a surprising defenestration, a hard-to-watch needle torture sequence (that should remind modern viewers of Miike's Audition, right down to the sadistic, high-pitched giggles), and a bit of psychological S&M when the imperious Sister Gertrude forces her shy-though-often-nude bunkmate to don some sleazy lingerie.

And there's sleaze to spare: the hallway seduction, the mental cruelty, a jaw-dropping inmate tryst in a rainstorm that goes on quite a bit longer than is strictly necessary, and an ethical dilemma for Dr. Dallesandro near the end that had me a bit conflicted myself. Be sure to have some hand sanitizer ready, kids, because I think you'll be wanting a wipe-down.

So fans of blasphemy, degradation, sex and gore, rejoice! Sister Gertrude is here to make all your dreams and nightmares come true. 2.5 thumbs, and remember: when confessing your sins, especially at the VHS Vicarage, be sure to be as detailed as possible. Absolution demands specifics.

"15 minutes? What are you talking about?"


Mr. Karswell said...

A true classic! Ken Russell's brilliant film The Devils did more for the nun movie than Jaws did for the shark movie.

You wanna see a really wild nun flick check out School of the Holy Beast (1974), it's from Japan and loaded with sexy weirdness.

The Vicar of VHS said...

Consider it Netflix'd! Of course I have about 90 movies in the queue, and I have to trade off with the wife, so it may be a while before I get to it...

Anonymous said...

I'm gonna admit to not reading your review before leaving this comment, only because I'm checking this one out based on the poster alone. There's some serious insanity on display there.

Alright, on to reading your write up....

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