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A vocation to suffer
A UK region 2 DVD review of KILLER NUN / SUOR OMICIDI by Gort
 

'Notorious' is one of those labels that mainstream movies prefer to avoid but which low budget horrors covet. It sends a clear message – famous, but for all the wrong reasons. Well, wrong if your taste runs to the conservative and you use words like 'depraved' to describe those films that have gone just too damned far for your uptight liking. If that describes you then you're reading the wrong review of the wrong film on the wrong site. We like depraved here. Actually, it's probably just me. That's why I get to review movies like Giulio Berruti's 1978 Killer Nun.

Killer Nun is certainly notorious, or at least it was on its original UK release. The BBFC cuts bits out and it ended up on the Director of Public Prosecution's so-called 'video nasties' list, a choice collection of titles that acted as a magnet to those of us in search of films to satiate our debauched tastes. The film soon gained cult status and it's not hard to see why – after all, this is both a nunsploitation and a giallo film, and a class example of both. And it stars Anita Ekberg from La Dolce Vita and the mother superior is played by Alida Valli, who starred in Eyes Without a Face and played Miss Tanner in Suspiria. On top of that, it's about the only nunsploitation film that plays out in a modern setting. How could any fan of cult exploitation cinema not want to see this?

Ekberg plays Sister Gertrude, who is stationed at one of those hospitals that employ nuns instead of nurses and where the patients are fed a daily dose of vitamin church with their medication. Not that they all want it or take the nuns that seriously – Gertrude's upbeat early morning call to Praise the Lord is met with a defiant "Never!" from the resident anarchist, while young, crutch-bound Peter appears determined to convince a particularly pretty novice to throw off her habit and start living the wild life. But Gertrude's initial cheer masks a deep rooted problem. Well, several actually. An apparently successful operation to remove a brain tumour has left her convinced that she is still in the throes of a serious illness, one she is self-medicating with morphine. When her prescription is cancelled, she funds her own supply by stealing a valuable ring from an elderly patient, whose death she assists through a deliberately leisurely approach to doctor's orders.

If you think this rather lamely explains away the wonderfully direct title then fear not, as other patients are being killed in rather more violent fashion, and guess who's the chief suspect? Not officially, mind you, but the patients don't buy the idea that their friend took his own life and have already made up their mind who administered the fatal battering. The only one who knows for sure is Gertrude's roommate Sister Mathieu, a full-breasted woman who has been in love with Gertrude for years and holds all bedroom conversations in the nude. Our type of nun, then. With Gertrude unable to recall her actions, Mathieu has been hiding the finger-pointing evidence, and it turns out it was she who tossed the body from a high window to make it look like suicide.

Gertrude appears mixed up enough to qualify as a borderline schizophrenic, stamping on the dentures of an elderly woman one minute and pleading for her forgiveness the next. Her vows are also conveniently forgotten on a trip to town to sell the stolen ring, where she takes up smoking and picks up a bloke in a bar for a quick but satisfying against-the-wall shag. When she spies two of the patients enjoying a similar act of mutual fulfillment, however, the male half of the pair ends up with a king-sized wad of surgical cotton stuffed down his windpipe.

All the elements are here for an unrestrained dive into cinematic hysteria, but one of Killer Nun's strengths is its unexpected refusal to take the mad plunge. The murders are nasty, but they're less frequent than expected (the first doesn't occur for some considerable time) and there's surprisingly little gore on display. Even the scene that so upset the BBFC back in 1978 in which female patient Janet is facially tortured with pins and a scalpel is not as visually nasty as it could have been, though it concludes with a jarringly effective moment of sudden violence that'll have you convinced you saw more than you actually did.

Killer Nun has a title and a rep that suggests cheap sensationalism (which I personally have no problem with), but is actually a bit of a standard bearer for the whole nunsploitation sub-genre. It's an intermittently imaginative, well made and engaging drama whose nastier sequences are fully plot-justified and are handled with the panache of giallo at its more stylish. There are a few memorable moments worthy of genre master Dario Argento (the body of Janet suspended from a high ceiling is a favourite), and there's even a dash of surrealism to the first murder in the hallucinogenic cutting between current events, morphine-twisted operation memories and a dream that tiptoes in the direction of necrophilia.

The title alone will no doubt prompt those unsympathetic to the delights of exploitation cinema to look down their noses at a film that they wouldn't even touch the box of, let alone put in their players. Feel free to shake your heads at the very idea of the star of La Dolce Vita being reduced to doing a grubby horror film, as while you're doing so, us more enlightened souls will be wearing our happy hats and enjoying a work that really does deserve its cult status, finally released intact for the UK market.

sound and vision

Another rather good anamorphic 1.85:1 transfer from Shameless. The contrast and colour look fine and the detail is better than you'd expect from 1970s Italian exploitation cinema. There are some digital artefacts in the dimmer scenes, but they're not a problem. As with simultaneous Shameless release Torso, the previously missing shots have been culled from the Italian print, so the dialogue briefly switches to Italian with English subtitles.

The Dolby 2.0 mono soundtrack is clearer and louder on music than on dialogue, but that's still not at all bad. There is some occasional background crackle, but it never dominates.

extra features

The Nun Speaks Out! (5:43)
A brief retrospective interview with Anita Ekberg in which she outlines her reasons for taking the role, talks a bit about the true story the film is supposedly based on and complains about the English dubbing.

Theatrical Trailer (2:46)
Is this the original trailer or one constructed by Shameless? Hard to say, but the graphics are certainly in particularly good shape.

There are also the usual trailers for other Shameless releases.

summary

This is a film and a DVD label targeted at a very specific audience, and if that includes you then be of cheer, as Killer Nun looks better than ever and is intact in the UK for the first time, and the scene in question is definitely the film's horror centrepiece. The Anita Ekberg interview, though brief, is a welcome extra.

Killer Nun
Suor Omicidi

Italy 19738
83 mins
director
Giulio Berruti
starring
Anita Ekberg
Paola Morra
Alida Valli
Massimo Serato
Daniele Dublino
Lou Castel
Joe Dallesandro

DVD details
region 0
video
1.85:1 anamorphic
sound
Dolby mono 2.0
languages
English / Italian
subtitles
Engligh on Italian dialogue sequences
extras
Anita Ekberg interview
Trailers
distributor
Shameless
release date
26 November 2007
review posted
26 December 2007

See all of Gort's reviews