For DVD screenshots and another perspective, see our review from 2004.
Review Date: October 6, 2012
Released by: Blue Underground
Release date: April 24, 2012
Codec: AVC, 1080p
Widescreen 1.85 | 16x9: Yes
I grew up in a relatively nonreligious home before I started attending catholic school in grade four so, from my very first exposure to Catholicism, Iíve always viewed the religion as an outsider. It was a unique position, being surrounded by the faith but never being a part of it. Tenets of the dogma that were taken for granted by my classmates were questioned by me, to the frequent chagrin of my religious studies teachers. Most galling to them, I think, was my lack of reverence for the rituals of the Catholic Church. I never looked upon priests or nuns as figures of supreme moral authority but as well-intentioned people devoting their lives to a set of ideals that I found questionable, at best.
I relate this background information so that itís clear that my problems with Killer Nun
have nothing to do with the subject matter, and everything to do with how itís handled by the filmmakers. There is no subject matter that canít be made into a compelling movie. Iím not offended by ďcontroversialĒ material, but I am offended when filmmakers obviously soft-pedal potentially provocative material in a transparent attempt to sidestep controversy.
Thereís nothing killer about this movie.
Sister Gertrude (Anita Ekberg), a cancer survivor, is slowly falling apart. While she spends her days caring for the sick and elderly, sheís convinced that sheís still ill and is unable to find a sympathetic ear in hospital heads Doctor Poirret (Massimo Serato) and Mother Superior (Alida Valli). Only young Sister Mathieu (Paola Morra), who harbors a secret infatuation with Gertrude, shows compassion. Distraught and inconsolable Gertrude turns to non-prescribed, and ever increasing, doses of morphine to treat her psychosomatic pain. Slipping deeper into drug addiction, she becomes unhinged - lashing out at staff, patients and residents. When her cruel humiliation of an old woman causes the woman to have a heart attack, Gertrude raids her personal belongings and steals an ostentatiously large diamond ring. Fabricating an excuse to go into the city out of uniform she pawns the ring and spends the money on a day of decadence: fancy clothes, expensive liquor and an anonymous sexual tryst.
After her wild night in town, Gertrude returns to stir up more unrest at the hospital. In a disciplinary meeting with the hospital administrator, she bad-mouths Dr. Poirret, effectively getting him dismissed. When a patient finds her whacked out on a morphine overdose she caves his skull in with a lamp and tosses his body out the window to make it look like suicide. Her efforts deflect police suspicion, but they donít fool the residents or the hopelessly infatuated Mathieu, who is willing to go as far as destroying evidence to cover for Gertrude.
Dr. Poirretís replacement, Dr. Patrick Roland (Joe Dallesandro), immediately senses something is wrong. The reasons given for Dr. Poirretís dismissal donít add up. A hospital administrator confesses that heís not questioned anything Sister Gertrude has done in an effort to ensure that Gertrude doesnít blow the whistle on his morphine addicted son. When Dr. Roland finds Gertrude whacked out on morphine, the lovelorn Mathieu is willing to do a lot more than destroy evidence to keep Gertrude from having to face the consequences of her actions.
Contrary to what the plots summary might have you believe, the biggest problem with Killer Nun
is that itís far too afraid of offending the very sensibilities that it should be taking aim at. Itís an odd film that never seems to find the right tone. Itís far too violent and sexy to appease the pious, yet as far as exploitation films go, itís relatively mild. Though it can occasionally concoct a truly unsettling scene without resorting to graphic violence or sexuality it too often it plays it safe. A movie called Killer Nun
is bound to offend devout Catholics and the clergy, regardless of content, so why not shoot for the moon and at least make exploitation audiences happy? Every time Killer Nun
seems like itís ready to smash some taboo it pulls back, rendered meek and moot by its own gun-shy attitude. The scene where Sister Gertrude stomps on an old womanís dentures is one of the most insanely cruel things I have ever seen, and the poor old womanís reaction sells the scene. As someone extremely phobic about his teeth, I found it harder to watch than any torture scene from a Hostel or Saw
film. If Killer Nun
had one or two more scenes with this kind of power, or just took that kind of manic, unrestrained approach in every scene, it mightíve been saved.
Thereís some sparse, but fairly decent, gore and a fair amount of low key lesbianism but the film quickly slips into a dull, repetitive structure that it never recovers from. Thereís no focus, no real narrative to pull you along and the murders are dressed up with so much pretense that they quickly lose interest. In addition to its lack of titillating elements, Killer Nun
doesnít have enough to story or any compelling characters to hold the audienceís interest. Who exactly is this movie made for? This material needed to be balls-out exploitation, or a serious character study. Killer Nun
plays at both and winds up being neither.
Finally, Killer Nun
ís effectiveness is muted somewhat by the real-life scandals involving institutional abuse in the Catholic Church and the resultant cover ups that have broken in the years since its release. The conjuring of exploitation filmmakers, no matter how enthusiastically well-crafted, will always pale in comparison to the real life suffering of defenseless children at the hands of clergy they trusted. That kind of betrayal puts any cinematic horror to shame. This is why I am so angered by the soft-pedalling of the subject matter. It is, by the directorís own admission, an attempt to not step on the toes of the Catholic Church. If there was even an institution that deserved to have its toes not just stepped, but utterly stomped, on itís the Holy Roman Church. Iím not faulting the film for the real life crimes of others but the lens through which modern viewers will approach Killer Nun
has to be addressed. Had Killer Nun
had the courage to be the wicked, unrestrained satire it shouldíve been, perhaps it would play far better today than it actually does.
Blue Underground is renowned for the quality of the film transfers of titles that wouldnít normally receive top flight presentation, if theyíre even released at all. When compared to the exceptional standard of the majority of Blue Undergroundís titles, Killer Nun
can only be judged a disappointment. The film is washed out with only the very darkest of colors making an impression. Some scenes have a faint flickering to them like they were either very lightly damaged or the damage was digitally repaired leaving a faint trace behind. Thereís a short scene starting at 11:19, and again at the 41 and 54 minute marks, that have a very obvious, juddery look to it, almost as if youíre watching poorly interlaced video. The problem is persistent and distracting and while the affected scenes are short, theyíre of a poor quality that I never would have expected to see from Blue Underground.
Two DTS-HD Master Audio mono tracks are included, one English and one Italian. The dialogue on the English track is a little sharper, but the trade-off for the clarity is a shriller high end; the opening Latin chorus is a bit more palatable in the Italian track. Itís the kind of disparity you could only really notice when doing a side-by-side, though, and both tracks are virtually free of hiss, noise, popping or any of the other defects youíd expect from a film that was pretty much abandoned after its release over thirty years ago.
Italian directors of the era seem to be very big on their artistic pretensions, which is why Giullio Berruti (who looks more than a bit like Harry Dean Stanton) is so refreshing in From the Secret Files of the Vatican (13:41). He certainly had high aspirations for Killer Nun
, but heís refreshingly open when it comes to discussing the finished film. While some directors get comically defensive in defending their trash as high art, he freely admits what he sees as Killer Nun
ís faults and shortcomings and is sympathetic to Ekbergís reticence to appear in such trashy material. Among his most interesting anecdotes is how he managed to conceal the subject matter of the film so well the production was able to shoot in an actual convent. That takes balls and the man has my respect for that.
The Theatrical Trailer (2:56) does very little to sell the movie beyond the concept of seeing a nun do bad things, but at least itís set to a jazzy little number that will worm its way into your brain and nest there for a good week. You have been warned.
The Poster and Still Gallery contains a couple of theatrical posters, a dozen or so lobby cards, some behind the scenes stills and very little of note. Killer Nun
ís truncated release is probably the reason for the dearth of marketing materials, which kind of begs the question of why a poster gallery was included to begin with.
Itís tough to say how Killer Nun
might have played when first released in 1977 but today, in light of the real life atrocities committed by members of the clergy against defenseless children, it inevitably pales in comparison. If you have a Scorsesian Catholic guilt complex it might play as deliciously naughty, but hardcore genre fans will find it lacking. Killer Nun
is a character study at the centre of which is a character that never comes into focus and an exploitation film thatís frankly not as exploitative as it needed to be. Itís a mixed bag of half measures and good intentions that pave a road not quite to hell but, at the very least, to boredom. Couple a mediocre movie with a transfer that is decidedly below par for the usually excellent Blue Underground and you have a disc that should be excommunicated from your collection.
Movie - C-
Image Quality - C+
Sound - B-
Supplements - B-
- Running time - 1 hour and 28 minutes
- Not Rated
- 1 Disc
- Chapter Stops
- English Mono DTS-HD Master Audio
- Italian Mono DTS-HD Master Audio
- English SDH subtitles
- English Subtitles for Italian Version
- French subtitles
- Spanish subtitles
- ďFrom the Secret Files of the VaticanĒ Interview with Co-writer/Director Giulio Berruti
- Theatrical Trailer
- Poster and Still Gallery