Looking back, especially after finishing Giulio Berruti's 'Killer Nun,' it's kind of a shame nunsploitation movies, a minor subgenre of exploitation films, didn't last beyond the grindhouse heyday. Granted, there have been a few more-recent efforts which try to revisit these types of movies or at least incorporate their style, but seeing Lindsay Lohan dressed as a nun in Robert Rodriguez's 'Machete' doesn't really count and 'Nude Nuns with Big Guns' isn't remotely bearable. No, the films which I'm referring to were weirdly atmospheric skin flicks popular during the 1970s, and they had a good deal of potential as the most extreme expressions of anti-establishment, particularly those made in Japan. Usually set as historical pieces, there was something hauntingly subversive about seeing women challenge the authoritative sexual oppressiveness of their religious order and discover a perverse celebration of the flesh. They weren't always tastefully done, but fascinatingly stylish nonetheless.
Berruti's 'Killer Nun' stands out from the lot of these movies because it's set in modern-day Italy inside a geriatric hospital and lacks the, ahem, sadomasochistic underpinnings often seen in its peers. Moreover, Berruti, who prior to this worked as assistant director on 'Baba Yaga,' and his co-writer Alberto Tarallo wanted to move the genre in a new direction by adding the murder-mystery elements of the giallo as well as a dramatic subplot that touched on contemporary issues. Of course, the filmmakers didn't stray too far from expectations — you've got to give audiences at least a little of what they've paid to see. The movie still comes with strong smatterings of eroticism and a few scenes of full-frontal nudity. All of it is done by sexy model Paola Morra, coming off her minor role in another nunsploitation film, Walerian Borowczyk's 'Beyond Convent Walls.'
The mystery centers on Sister Gertrude (Anita Ekberg), who's put back in charge of the hospital while still recovering from neurosurgery. There are times when this becomes a point of narrative interest because it's clear the poor woman has not fully recuperated and is suffering a mental breakdown. She's outrageously abusive to her patients, such as when she stomps on a poor old lady's dentures during dinner, and she reads aloud detailed accounts of tortured saints at mealtime. At other times, this also works to the movie's detriment because everyone seems to either ignore or shrug off her unbalanced state, even as she pleads with the doctor to help by relieving her of her duties. Adding to Sister Gertrude's misery, as well as the plot, are the brutal murders of her patients by an unknown assailant making it look as if she's responsible. It's a curious slant for this type of genre, even if Berruti doesn't quite pull it off.
Fellini fans will recognize Ekberg as the Swedish bombshell which made movie history and became legend for jumping in the Trevi Fountain as Sylvia in 'La Dolce Vita.' Her appearance in this low-budget horror drama is rather surprising but also appreciated, bringing some level of respectability along with Alida Valli ('Suspiria,' 'The Third Man,' '1900'), Massimo Serato ('El Cid,' 'Don't Look Now') and Joe Dallesandro (Andy Warhol's 'Flesh,' 'Black Moon'). There aren't any water fountains for Ekberg to frolic in or any scenes of quirky romance with beautiful baroque architecture in the background, but she's given ample screen time to display her acting talents. As Sister Gertrude, she battles for her sanity while directing her rage on those around her, and she struggles with a morphine addiction, which only exacerbates her already troubled mind.
In Ekberg's seemingly victimized nun, we find some intriguing possibilities which try to push the subgenre in titillating ways. Inspired by the headline story of a real-life nun who killed the elderly patients in her care to steal their jewelry, the movie unfortunately doesn't quite satisfy, meandering about for much of the second act as featureless filler to a murder mystery that's easy to figure out. Ekberg's Sister Gertrude and her waspish behavior is ultimately what maintains curiosity high enough to see 'Killer Nun' through to the end. Director Giulio Berruti exhibits some small pockets of visual brilliance, like when Gertrude kneels as if to pray just before injecting herself, which makes the movie a hair above average but not quite as subversively shocking as its peers.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Blue Underground brings 'Killer Nun' to Blu-ray on a Region Free, BD25 disc inside a blue eco-vortex keepcase. Viewers are taken directly to the main menu with full-motion clips and music playing in the background.
'Killer Nun' exposes herself on Blu-ray with a fairly strong though somewhat artificial-looking 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode. The 1.85:1 frame comes with a slightly disappointing digitized appearance, especially the very-visible grain structure and several close-ups of the cast. But it is also easily forgiven when considering the work and effort that went into the movie's restoration and remastering from the original negatives.
With that in mind, the transfer is actually commendable and generally satisfying. At times, you can tell the print used has suffered some significant damage and everything has been done to repair it. On the right side of the screen, fluctuations in chroma saturation are noticeable while a few scenes show mild levels of degradation and look warped. In light of this, the picture remains surprisingly stable and pretty good with an attractively bold and animated color palette. Contrast and brightness are, for the most part, consistent and give the image a nicely rejuvenated appeal with deep, accurate blacks throughout. Shadow details are also pleasing while overall definition and resolution are satisfactory for a 30-plus-year-old movie with fine, distinct textures on the clothing and faces of actors.
All things considered, the controversial nunsploitation flick arrives with a very good high-def presentation.
The audio elements have also been significantly cleaned up and remastered for this DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack. And like the video, the original mono design comes with some noticeably damaged aspects, most apparent is the sudden switch from the English dub to the original Italian language, suggesting those particular segments are forever lost. But on the whole, the lossless track is quite good with strong dialogue reproduction, except for a couple scenes where voices drop a few decibels. The mid-range is clean and sharp but not very extensive and mostly average on the whole, with a thunderstorm sequence being the only moment where the upper frequencies are prominent yet feels narrow and a tad bright. The score nicely opens up the soundstage somewhat, but low bass is pretty anemic and practically non-existent. Still, it's an adequate and satisfying mix.
The same set of bonus material in the DVD release is ported over for this Blu-ray.
Made at the height of nunsploitation popularity, 'Killer Nun' stars screen legend Anita Ekberg as a nun whose mental breakdown and cruelty towards the patients at a convalescent home makes her the prime suspect in a murder mystery. Not quite the most memorable of exploitation movies, it makes a decent and interesting watch for its attempt to push the subgenre in a new direction. The Blu-ray arrives with a strong audio and video presentation, if only mildly problematic, with the same set of supplements as the DVD. Cult enthusiasts will be happy nonetheless to include it in their libraries of 70s sleaze.