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Mischief in the cloisters
A UK region 0 box set review of LET US PRAY – A BOX OF NUNSPLOITATION, consisting of SACRED FLESH, THE SINFUL NUNS OF SAINT VALENTINE and JUSTINE, by Gort
 

If you've never heard the term nunsploitation then there's a gap in your film education. Whether it's a gap you'll want to fill may depend on your reaction to the following words: cult, exploitation, historical drama, sex, nuns, lesbian, sadomasochism, religious corruption. I think that covers the basics.

Let Us Pray is a recently released three-film box set from Redemption, a video label who specialise in the sort of delights that such films promise, and is clearly aimed at fans of the genre and newcomers looking for an introduction. All three of the films contained within have been released previously as stand-alone discs by Redemption and are gathered together here for their romp-in-the-convent factor. There are no classics here, even by this genre's sleazy standards, but there's still enough to intermittently interest us connoisseurs.

Sacred Flesh

The most recent of the three films is the one that most convincingly wears the nunsploitation badge, loaded as it is with large-breasted nuns and sexual frolics, all linked by the slimmest of plot threads. We covered the stand-alone disc earlier this year, so if you want to know more about the film and the disc then click here.

Sinful Nuns of Saint Valentine

I've seen more than one complaint about Sinful Nuns of Saint Valentine [Le Scomunicate di San Valentino] that specifically targets that title. I'm not a bit surprised. For nunsploitation fans it makes promises that it largely fails to keep. It's not that the title is wilfully deceptive. After all, the main location is a convent named Saint Valentine, it's populated by nuns (as these places tend to be), and by Christian traditionalist standards at least, their behaviour is genuinely sinful. It's just that we don't get to see much of it. And that, frankly, is why most of us tuned in.

The setup certainly has fruity potential. Accused of heresy and murder, good-looking young Esteban is injured while fleeing the soldiers of the Inquisition and takes refuge in the lodge of Joaquin, the verger of the Saint Valentine Convent in which Esteban's girlfriend Lucita resides. Joaquin acts as a reluctant go-between for the pair, knowledge of which is used by roommate Josefa to blackmail her way into Lucita's nightgown. When the naughty Josefa is killed in the corridor by an unseen assailant, it's Lucita that gets the blame. And when she's placed in the hands on the Inquisition's most notorious persuader, Father Onorio (whose assistant looks a bit like Lance Henrikson), the deliciously named Abess Doña Incarnación Diez de Montalbo begins making moves on young Estaban.

It all sounds like the recipe for nunsploitation heaven – a convent, a strapping young man, a sexually frustrated mother superior, a lesbian roommate and the prospect of naked torture. And if you want to keep on believing that the movie will deliver on all of these then skip to the end, as I'm about to go on a small spoiler binge.

There's flesh on display here, but less than you might reasonably expect or hope for, and the sex tends to play out on the wrong side of tasteful, thanks to a careful arrangement of bedsheets and bodies and a refusal to get beyond the grappling stage, at least while the camera's present. One naughty sister gets a topless whipping, and Josefa gets really fond of Lucita's bed sheets, but don't get your hopes up for Lucita's encounter with Father Onorio, as faced with the prospect of being tortured for Jesus, she rolls out a false confession and calmly prepares herself to being burned alive for her heresy. Sinful Nuns was either unwilling to go the whole hog or was the victim of censorial times in a country where the Catholic church, at least in the early 70s, still had some serious clout.

This leaves the plot to carry the can and it's not really up to it. Credibility takes a nosedive in the final third, when walled-up nuns need only about two hours to go all Devils of Loudun in distinctly sub-Ken Russell fashion, while conflicts are brought to an impossibly neat conclusion by a Grand Inquisitor whose smiling understanding and benevolence suggest that the Inquisition was actually overseen by Father Christmas.

Sinful Nuns is briskly paced, but for the most part treads an unexciting and unadventurous genre path to its too-neat conclusion. It's not without interest or merit, however, particularly in the character and actions of the mother superior (an enjoyable turn from Françoise Prévost, who creates in her a woman who you might just risk the consequences to get seduced by). But nunsploitation fans tend to judge a film on the delivery rather than the build-up, and many are likely to regard Sinful Nuns of Saint Valentine as, if you'll pardon the expression, a bit of a cinematic cock-tease.

Justine

How do you fancy seeing your name turned into a descriptive noun? It doesn't happen to many of us and is usually confined to a specialist field. I mean, when was the last time you heard a person described as Hitchcockian or Orwellian or Churchillian? But sadistic? In this particular field, the Marquis sits at the top of the torture tree.

Justine was one of a duet of novels written by De Sade exploring alternate paths to moral salvation or damnation. While Justine searched for purity, her sister Juliette followed a path of wanton depravity. Guess who had more fun? Of course, you might have to make some adjustments to your definition of what actually constitutes fun to appreciate this.

Justine the novel has been made into a number of the films over the years, none of which have come close to capturing the head-on depravity of the written word. That might not be a bad thing, as it happens. Give the book a read and you'll see what I mean. The adaptation under discussion here was originally released back in the late 70s as Cruel Passion with bits snipped out for our moral protection. Those of us who caught it then only tend to remember it for its young female star, the improbably named Koo Stark, who inevitably ended up copping nicknames like Koo Starkers or Koo Stark Naked. If the name rings a bell then that may be because she later dated some newsworthy guy named Andrew who hangs out at Buck House.

Koo plays the innocent, 16-year-old Justine who, following her father's suicide and her mother's subsequent expiration from shock, lands in a convent school with her 17-year-old sister Juliette. This is one of those convents, the sort where almost every nun in the place have their fingers in each other's knickers. Despite her contempt for the church and its representatives, Juliette takes full advantage of the services on offer. But after the nasty mother superior unsuccessfully tries it on with the mortified Justine, the two are turfed out and left to find their own way in the world. They head to London to make their fortunes as prostitutes and are taken in by Madame Laronde, whose greed gland goes nuts at the news of their virginal status. The pair receive instruction from their new workmates and an outrageous fop named George, and while Juliette takes to the work with some enthusiasm, Justine is out of there before anyone can claim her particular prize.

Don't be fooled by those previous BBFC cuts (some of which appear to be still in place), as this is De Sade light, a watered down version of a novel that I wouldn't recommend to even the mildly sensitive for a holiday read – the Justine of the book is 12 years old and is subjected to all manner of depravity in her quest for a life of innocence. Koo's Justine may look young and innocent, but she's clearly of legal age and for the most part does a bang-up job of sidestepping the advances of the many sexual aggressors she encounters.

Stylistically caught between a rock and a hard place (fnar fnar), Justine trades on its sex and nudity but still wants to play serious with its drama, but is neither naughty nor compelling enough to score highly in either camp. But it's also nowhere near as bad as some would have you believe. There's some above-average cinematography from one Roger Deakins – later to become the Coen Brothers' regular lensman – and the screenplay by actor Ian Cullen (who also has a brief role as a brothel customer) is sometimes smarter than most seem prepared to credit. The then 21-year-old Koo is actually rather engaging as Justine, blessed as she is with a the looks of a genuine innocent and a body that men would fight duels to get a lingering look at. I also enjoyed Lydia Lisle's Juliette, both for her no-nonsense self-confidence and her brazen contempt for anyone in a position of religious authority. It's she who gets some of the nicest lines, particularly her advice to her sister regarding the opposite sex. "Is there no honour left in men?" Justine asks her. "Precious little," Juliet replies. "Not worth the search."

sound and vision

Details of the picture and sound quality of Sacred Flesh can be found on the review of that disc, here.

The picture on Sinful Nuns of Saint Valentine is 2.35:1 and letterboxed and at its best it's pretty good. Consistency is the main issue here, with contrast in particular varying quite a bit, sometimes from shot to shot. Occasionally, as with the discovery of Josefa's body, the picture is faded enough to make you wonder if the scene was left in a shirt pocket when it was put in the wash. On two occasions a reel change throws the racking out a bit, but it's quickly teased back into place. The soundtrack is on the crispy side, distorting sharp trebles such as the dings of clashing swords, and is underscored by a hiss that is inevitably more noticeable in quieter scenes. Just occasionally it's joined by a hum or some crackle and pop and even a couple of bonks. Other than that it's clear enough to follow the dialogue if you're an Italian speaker. And full marks to Redemption for presenting the film in its original Italian with optional English subtitles.

The anamorphic 1.78:1 picture on Justine looks rather good when the dust settles down after the reel changes, and the colour and contrast are on the whole sound, although the latter feels a little cranked up in places with a subsequent loss of shadow detail. On the whole, it's better than I was expecting. There are some very audible pops and clunks about an hour in, but on the whole the soundtrack is clean and clear, if of inevitably limited range.

extra features

Once again, check the Sacred Flesh review for details of the extras. There aren't many.

Sinful Nuns of Saint Valentine has the original Italian theatrical trailer (2:36), which is presented without subtitles and includes some of the 'stronger' stuff. Also included are a pointless stills gallery consisting of 9 frame grabs (why?), a video art gallery featuring two Redemption covers, a filmography but no indication who it's for (it's actually director Sergio Grieco) and trailers for Black Magic Rites & The Secret Orgies of the 14th Century (3:20) and Nude for Satan (3:52), both of which are excellent titles, though I haven't yet seen the films themselves. There's also a music video for White Slaves by The Nuns, signed on Redemption's Triple Silence label. It's a video that has Redemption written all over it.

Justine has the usual stills gallery, which consists of 24 pictures of variable quality, a mixture of frame grabs and promotional black-and-whites. Promo art has 3 grabs from the original publicity booklet. There are also trailers for Requiem for a Vampire (3:00) and Les Démoniaques (6:05).


box set summary

OK, none of the films are retrospectively going to find themselves championed as forgotten classics, but collectively they do represent an interesting introduction to a genre many have no doubt yet to flirt with. They demonstrate the genre in evolution – Sinful Nuns of Saint Vincent takes its drama more seriously than its debauchery, Justine has equal time for them both, while sex and big breasts are pretty much the raison d'être of Sacred Flesh, despite dramatic elements that sometimes wander into the surreal. Nunsploitation fans who have none of the films in this box set owe it to themselves to at least see Justine and Sacred Flesh (despite the fact that only the first third of the former takes place in a convent), and the set as a whole would make a neat Christmas gift for that friend with a taste for the everso slightly perverse.

Let Us Pray – A Box of Nunsploitation

Sacred Flesh
UK 2000
72 mins
director
Nigel Wingrove
starring
Sally Tremaine
Moyna Cope
Simon Hill
Kristina Bill
Rachel Taggart

DVD details
region 0
video
1.78:1 anamorphic
sound
Dolby 2.0 stereo
languages
English
subtitles .
none
extras
Stills
Artwork
Storyboards
Trailers

Sinful Nuns of Saint Valentine
Le Scomunicate di San Valentino
Italy 1974
89 mins
director
Sergio Grieco
starring
Françoise Prévost
Jenny Tamburi
Paolo Malco
Franco Ressel
Corrado Gaipa

DVD details
region 0
video
2.35:1 letterboxed
sound
Dolby 2.0 mono
languages
Italian
subtitles .
English
extras
Stills
Artwork
filmography
Trailers

Justine
aka Cruel Passion
UK / West Germany / Italy 1977
94 mins
director
Chris Boger
starring
Koo Stark
Martin Potter
Lydia Lisle
Katherine Kath
Hope Jackman

DVD details
region 0
video
2.35:1 letterboxed
sound
Dolby 2.0 mono
languages
English
subtitles
none
extras
Stills
Artwork
Trailers
distributor
Redemption
release date
out now
review posted
27 November 2007

related review
Sacred Flesh

See all of Gort's reviews