There’s exploitation, and there’s exploitation. And then there’s nunsploitation. There are few forms more unabashedly interested in the full-on sleaze wallow, with the possible exception of the nunsploitation film’s close cousin, the Women In Prison (WIP) flick. As ever, this is less a survey (there’s an entire book on the subject out there), more some semi-random musings.
Sleazy as the form gets, its roots are relatively serious in nature (but then, the same is true of the WIP). One of the pioneering works…in the field is Domenico Paoella’s Story of a Cloistered Nun (1973, out on DVD from NoShame). A more handsomely produced film than many others of its ilk would be, it is something of a gem for fans of Dario Argento, in that it stars three of his heroines: Suzy Kendall (from The Bird with the Crystal Plumage) is the mother superior, Catherine Spaak (from Cat O’ Nine Tails) is the bad girl, and Eleonora Giorgi (from Inferno) is the title character. The basic formula is here: unwilling novice is locked up by her family in the convent, is lusted over by her fellow nuns, and becomes pregnant thanks to an illicit affair. Much torment ensues. This effort is, however, far more restrained in the nudity department than most of its successors, and much of the time comes very close to passing itself off as a serious period drama. Something one would not be able to say of the works of Joe D’Amato and Bruno Mattei.
Oh, and did the names tip you off? Did you say, hey, lots of Italians pumping out these movies? Quite right. Ditto for the Spanish. Though one of the founding films in the genre, The Devils is courtesy England’s Ken Russell, the vast majority of nunsploitation films came out of countries where the Catholic church has (or had) mucho clout. This is interesting, if not surprising, bespeaking a pretty fraught intracultural dialogue. Make no mistake: institutional religion does not come off well in these stories. Hypocrisy, lust, greed, corruption and murder are very much the order of the day.
Not wanting its Old World cousins to hog all the spotlight, Mexico chimed in too, and one of its offerings is also from 1973, and has a title as over the top as “Story of a Cloistered Nun” is tame: Satanico Pandemonium. Here a demented sister becomes convinced that she is possessed by Satan, leading to all sorts of blood and thunder. Though a climactic orgy is rather laughable, there is plenty of energy here, and real commitment to the blasphemous. This one is out from Mondo Macabro
But even Gilberto Martinez Solares’ effort pales in comparison to School of the Holy Beast, which I’ve mentioned before. This one, unusually, is from Japan, hardly a stronghold for the Catholic church, and perhaps for that reason the blasphemy is absolutely unrestrained. Directed by Norifumi Suzuki, this 1974 marvel (out from Cult Epics) about a woman who goes undercover in a convent to find out what happened to her mother gives us everything from urination on crucifixes to rose-thorn whippings, plus a vengeful ghost in the bargain. It is also easily the most beautiful film under consideration here. In fact, the movie is so good, almost everything else in the genre seems disappointingly lazy and staid by comparison.
Go forth, then, and sin plenty.