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Home / Film / Feature Articles / IT IS A NUN’S VOCATION TO SUFFER! – A look at Arrow Video’s newly anointed Blu-ray of Giulio Berruti’s Killer Nun (1978).

IT IS A NUN’S VOCATION TO SUFFER! – A look at Arrow Video’s newly anointed Blu-ray of Giulio Berruti’s Killer Nun (1978).

Although commonly referred to as a ‘nasty nun’ or nunsploitation film (which has become the more accepted nomenclature for this longstanding subgenre of Italian film), Giulio Berruti’s Suor Omicidi (Killer Nun,1978) or The Killer Nun, as it’s referred to on English prints) is, despite the in-your-face title, not that easy to pigeonhole. Incorporating strong Giallo elements into its overly-melodramatic premise, the film also strays from the genre’s usual period-piece, cloistered setting, but then again, Sister Gertrude (Anita Ekberg), the film’s main character, is a guilt-ridden, sexually-repressed nun who frequently takes pleasure in a number of sinful transgressions; an aspect which most certainly wouldn’t out of place in any number of nasty nun films made before or after Berruti’s film. While preceded by a “Based on actual events…” title card—which might at first glance appear to be mere typical trash-film hyperbole—producer Enzo Gallo’s initial story for Killer Nun was in fact based on a real-life murder case, which centered around Cécile Bombeek, a middle-aged Belgian nun and geriatrics supervisor at a hospital in Wetteren, Belgium.

Originating from the more popular Gialli of the era, Berruti’s film nonetheless tells a tale similar to the Bombeek case, which also takes place in a hospice, this one in Brussels. This institution is presided over by one Dr. Poirret (Massimo Serato) and Sister Gertrud, who habitually—pun intended!—offers nuggets of ecclesiastical wisdom to her patients, including “Treat the Lord with respect, or the Devil will take its due!”; cautionary advice which, as we shall soon witness, she herself would also do well to heed. Although she frequently suffers from “terrible headaches” due to a recent brain operation, Dr. Poirret confirms that Gertrude’s latest tests are clear and that many of her symptoms are merely psychosomatic. However, having become addicted to the stuff, Sister Gertrude demands more morphine, which the doctor refuses to prescribe. Obviously, in the throes of withdrawal, she pleads to be put into isolation, but the Mother Superior (Alida Valli) advises her to “seek help from the confessional” instead, and even though she continues asking for aid, Mother Superior coldly proclaims that “It is a nun’s vocation to suffer!” As she becomes increasingly desperate—most memorably depicted when, out of sheer spite, she cold-heartedly crushes an elderly woman’s dentures beneath her feet—Sister Gertrude even feels impelled to break the Eighth Commandment (i.e., steal) in order to support her addiction, but when a series of mysterious deaths begin to occur at the hospice, the drug-possessed Gertrude steadily loses her grip on reality…

At times, Killer Nun possesses a similar baroque atmosphere to any number of Gialli, and even though much of the narrative unfolds within the ‘pure’ (i.e., clinically sterile), colorless hospice, the setting’s seemingly innocuous façade harbors many dark secrets. An interestingly offbeat late-career choice for aging Fellini alumnus Anita Ekberg, the legendary actress is nevertheless perfectly cast as the dope-addled Sister Gertrude, who is constantly at odds with her own damaged psyche. Knowing full-well that her drug dependency has become a “crutch”, she resorts to relieving recently-deceased patients of their jewelry, which she then pawns in the city for some quick cash in order to score her next fix. While off on one of her clandestine excursions (all of which is memorably set to the easy-listening sounds of Alessandro Alessandroni’s score), she sheds her habit at the train station, dons street-clothes instead, pawns a stolen ring, then heads to a bar where, following some furtive glances (“It’s so nice to be treated like a lady. I think I’ll start with a man!”), she boldly propositions a stranger (Brunello Chiodetti) for some—fully-clothed—public sex. Partaking in the ‘sins of the flesh’, a common theme of many a nasty nun film, Berruti nonetheless keeps nudity to a minimum. That said, a young novice named Sister Mathieu (Paola Morra), who works closely with Sister Gertrude, is frequently seen parading around in her birthday suit while trying in vain to console her senior sister in the middle of the night (“Why has everyone turned against me?! Why are they testing my faith in God!?”). But Sister Mathieu’s continued, verging-on-obsessive Sapphic advances become too much for Sister Gertrude (“You’ve been rolling your eyes at me ever since you’ve been transferred here! Flaunting your big floppy breasts in front of me at every opportunity!”).

As with most nunsploitation films, the scenario is set against the shadowy, hypocritical world of the Catholic Church. In usual documentarist Berruti’s hands, however, the standard sordid plot devices (i.e., broken vows of celibacy and a seemingly endless parade of flesh) are substituted with several jarring, quite suspenseful murder tableaux and some interesting social commentary related to drug addiction; which, in this case, is the true devil of the Berruti film. In one of its more effectively harrowing scenes, Sister Gertrude desperately searches her dresser drawer for a possible fix, as witnessed by DP Tonino Maccoppi’s strategically-placed camera from high overhead. While preparing her syringe, she raises it to the light to check the dosage and, as viewed from Maccoppi’s elevated vantage point, it almost appears as though the nun is about to receive the Holy Sacrament, in this case, her drug (i.e., the Devil). Punctuated by Alessandroni’s manic and exceedingly tense guitar work (a marvellously edgy piece of music which is almost on par with his amazing score for Jean Brismeé’s The Devil’s Nightmare (1971), former editor Berruti (along with the film’s credited editor, Mario Giacco) brilliantly capture the fragmented state of Sister Gertrude’s subconscious through an unforgettably intense montage of startling images during this sequence, another of the film’s numerous lurid highlights.

Since its DVD debut via Blue Underground back in 2004, Killer Nun has remained steadily in print on both DVD and Blu-ray, but Arrow Video’s recent BD is most definitely the one to beat. Featuring a new 2K restoration from the original 35mm camera negative, Arrow’s transfer stays more faithful to the film’s original look, as opposed to Blue Underground’s previous somewhat problematic Blu-ray, which included a fair amount of digital ‘scrubbing’. Although each version differs only slightly (different opening and closing credits), Arrow also offers viewers the option of choosing either the film’s English (87m10s) or Italian (88m56s) version, both of which include LPCM 1.0 mono tracks in English and Italian, with optional English subtitles provided for the latter. Both sound excellent, so it’s really just a matter of personal preference as to which option you choose.

While previous home video editions did include some notable extras, Arrow’s new disc is the most extras-packed yet, beginning with an excellent audio commentary from Movies & Mania’s Adrian J. Smith and The Reprobate’s David Flint, who divulge plenty of details about the film’s interesting cast, including walk-on cameos for Alida Valli, Lou Castel and a “wasted role” for Joe Dallesandro (who does at least get his crotch licked—albeit only through his pants—by nympho nun Sister Mathieu at one point!). Smith and Flint also discuss many of the film’s misconceptions with audiences and its “melodramatic nature”, which they never consider to be a negative; Alessandroni’s superb score; and the film’s ridiculous Video Nasty history, which they believe was a “victim of its promotion.”

In Beyond Convent Walls, Diabolique’s very own Kat Ellinger provides a wonderfully detailed visual essay on nunsploitation and Killer Nun, wherein she traces the origins of the genre beginning with its many literary roots as well as Jacques Rivette’s 1966 film adaptation La Religieuse, which is seen (quote) “as an early precursor to nunsploitation when it comes to films specifically.” She also touches on the influential literary work of Matthew Lewis and in particular his 1796 novel The Monk, and how in it “Nuns were cruel, callous, upholders of establishment values”, which is evident in many subsequent nunsploitation films, including Killer Nun. Skillfully edited and directed by Nucleus Film’s Marc Morris and incorporating a number of terrific film clips, poster art and photos, Beyond Convent Walls is stunning work all around, and one of the disc’s many highlights.

Arrow have also produced a number of informative on-camera interviews beginning with Our Mother of Hell, in which Giulio Berruti discusses his unique career and the production history of Killer Nun including his skepticism about Ekberg taking the lead role and how the film’s rerelease tagline “From the Secret Files of the Vatican” got the film into hot water. In Cut & Noise, editor Mario Giacco goes over his working relationship with Berruti (“We had a different way of seeing cinema and editing”), and even though he has also worked as an editor, he is first-and-foremost a Foley Artist. In Starry Eyes, actor Ileana Fraja also discusses her brief involvement in the film as well as her extensive modeling and theatre career.  A brief stills gallery and the film’s English and Italian trailers conclude the bevy of extras. Featuring marvelous original artwork by Daryl Joyce (the reversible cover showcases the film’s original Italian poster art), the discs’ first pressing includes a thick, nicely-illustrated 43-page booklet containing thorough essays by Andreas Ehrenreich and Roberto Curti, latter of whom also discusses the real-life case at length. Vacillating somewhere between a nasty nun film and the small-scale paranoia of a Giallo, Giulio Berruti’s Killer Nun nonetheless remains a consistently entertaining one-off that is well worth seeking out, especially via Arrow’s sinfully slick Blu-ray.

About Dennis Capicik

Dennis Capicik is a lifelong fan of movies. He is the co-founder of the old school ’zine Sub-Terrenea and has also contributed to Video Watchdog, European Trash Cinema, Giallo Pages, Killbaby! and the original incarnation of Monster! He is also a regular contributor to the re-vamped Monster! and Weng’s Chop. He also runs the movie blog Unpopped Cinema.

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