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31 Days of Gialloween: Killer Nun (1979)

A short, but oh so sweet, addition to our 31 Days of Gialloween today. I want to give you a little sermon on the pure joy to be found in Giulio Berruti’s Killer Nun (1979). Marketing of the film has been unfairly misleading in recent years leading some to feel disappointed because the title didn’t meet expectations based on said promotion. The film went out with the tagline: “at last the slut is uncut”. And while that makes for a salacious selling point, it doesn’t really convey what it’s all about. The fact Killer Nun was formerly on the UK video nasties list adds further confusion. But that decision appears to be based on the title alone and nothing to do with any blasphemous nun-based filth that might be contained within. There are far more graphic films when it comes to sex and violence than Killer Nun.

And now here I am apparently underselling the film. A potential nunsploitation film without filth? I can practically hear you lovely, but discouraged, miscreants sloping off now to watch something far more bombastic, like The Devils (1971) Rape of Christ scene. Please, hear me out. My point here isn’t to put people off: the film does have sex and violence, and it certainly has killing and nuns. The issue here is the way its genre has been marketed. Because, regardless of the fact it has nuns in it, it isn’t a nunsploitation film as many have been lead to believe. It’s actually a very solid late era giallo, which deserves far more love than it’s had in the past.

The narrative accounts the descent into psychosis of Sister Gertrude (Anita Ekberg), who, following brain surgery for cancer, is plagued with paralysing headaches, blackouts and violent outbursts. Gertrude is in charge of a mental facility and worries that her recent illness has rendered her unable to do her job properly. She implores the facility doctor, Dr. Poirret (Massimo Serato, Don’t Look Now, 1973) and Mother Superior (Alida Valli, Franju’s Eyes Without a Face, 1960) to relieve her of her duties and admit her into hospital for observation. Both are reluctant and insist she is in good health. Unable to cope with the pain Sister Gertrude resorts to morphine abuse to cope with the headaches, which only seems to make things worse. During her blackouts patients end up murdered in violent ways.

Ekberg, well at the tail end of her career at this point, was 47 years old when she was cast in the part of Gertrude. She is perfect in the role. Nasty and sadistic, as she takes out her frustrations on her patients on one hand, while on the other she is freuquently shown in a desperate, frail, self loathing state, as her life and confidence crumble around her. Ekberg’s performance is a far cry from her giggling glamour girl in Fellini’s La Dolce Vita (1960), but she gives it her all, channelling aspects of Repulsion (1965) and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’s (1975) Nurse Ratched in equal measure. Much pleasure is to be found in her unrestrained performance; be it sleazing off to pick up strange men for illicit sex, barking at mental patients, or sitting slumped over on her bedroom floor blubbering for a fix. Ekberg has an overwrought expression for every occasion. It’s pure melodrama and histrionics, but her performance is all the better for it. I say this without any hint of irony whatsoever given that I relish this kind of thing.

Director Berruti directed only one other film, an obscure Italian sex comedy called Noi Siam Come Le Lucciole (1976). Interestingly, he also served as Assistant Director on Corrado Farina’s eye popping cinematic feast Baba Yaga (1973) — which he also edited and co-wrote the screenplay — as well as serving as script writer on Farina’s earlier film Hanno Cambiato Faccia (They Have Changed Faces,1971). When you take into consideration how out there Farina’s films where — and Hanno Cambiato Faccia in particular provides some fabulously sharp satire on capitalism through the metaphor of vampires — and Berruti’s inclusion on those, it makes sense he would continue to break convention in his own films. On this note Killer Nun, whilst clearly a giallo, moves to the rhythm of its own drum.

And what a beautiful drum it really is, from Alessandro Alessandroni’s lush score — from which the strumming carnally charged track labelled simply Sequence 4 was lifted for Cattet & Forzani’s The Strange Color of Your Body’s Tears (2013) — to the stylish white minimalistic settings and explosively staged murders — one patient gets tortured by needles being forced into their eyes and face, while more violence erupts when someone gets their head smashed by a lamp, before they are thrown out of the window. Berruti uses a less is more approach to conveying the sleaze, and constantly interrupts the darker content with comic relief, or sexual asides — Paola Morra, playing a young nun, serves up most of the latter, after giving Ekberg the opportunity for a lesbian romp, she moves on to the dishy young doc played by none other than Joe Dallesandro, to give him a blow job. Yes, that is as fabulous as it sounds, although most of the real nitty gritty remains strictly off screen.

At this point I could go into some of the glorious context to do with guilt and religion, the gender themes associated with neurosis and psychosis, all of which Killer Nun handles in some interesting ways, but sometimes you just have to say, look, fuck it, I need to go and watch a giallo where nuns kill people in a hospital. So I will have to leave it there, and do just that. Because if there’s one film that delivers on that score alone, it’s Killer Nun.

About Kat Ellinger

Kat Ellinger is the Editor-in-Chief at Diabolique Magazine, and the co-host of their Daughters of Darkness and Hell's Belles podcasts. She has also written for BFI, Senses of Cinema, Fangoria and Scream Magazine, and provided various home video supplements, commentary, liner notes, on camera interviews and audio essays, for a number of companies including Arrow Films, Kino Lorber, Indicator, Second Run and Cult Films. Kat is the author of Daughters of Darkness (Devil's Advocates, Auteur), and All the Colours of Sergio Martino (Arrow Films).

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