Killer Nun (1979) Review by RevTerry

Nuns are fucking magic. Not that they can fly or instantly heal the sick (as far as I know), but there is just something powerful about the holy women in God's army.  A certain beauty always accompanies watching someone do something that's out of character or against the rules, like watching old people skateboard. In the case of the Catholic nuns, you get the added bonus of supposedly being married to God as well. It's not just the simple, out place comedy-- like watching nuns rock out to death metal or when Whoopi Goldberg teaches them how not to take shit from assholes while learning a valuable life lesson herself. It's more complex, the nun is a long-running, respected symbol of purity, chastity, and authority. She has been part of the world's Swiss-army knife authority forever it seems, filling in for many roles, able to act as teacher, tyrant or nurse. Images of monk-like disciples in black and white robes have been burned into the minds of a lot of the globe’s population, even those whose family never even attended a mass -God's more violent arm made sure of that. They make for entertaining contrast or juxtaposition, and because of this (and more), the trope makes the perfect target for the sects of cinema that take trade in deconstructing ideas of reverence. The entertaining result of exploitation film’s assault on the ancient order--a combination of niche movies dubbed "nunspolation", which plays off the traditional image of the nun by combining it with good old-fashioned sex and violence in the normal shocking fashions. The religious element seems to give it all an extra bite that it would take a psychiatrist and a cultural anthropologist to fully explain. For me, it can be summed simply enough--supposed blasphemy is fun shit and always has been. The sub-genre has its variations and shares common tropes with other sects of trash cinema, most commonly “women in prison” or “demonic horror” films. Catholic guilt can easily give seed to imagined bloodletting in ways that are sure to fuck with some people. And of course, there is always the martyr angle which has always been a go-to for horror.  Often times, the stories have an erotic nature, as sexy (or sexually deviant) nuns have been a classic trope in fringe media for ages. Sexy blasphemy is even better, again, a psychologist could probably give you a thorough reason why (but may also probably ruin sexy nun time for you in the process). At the moment, I'm not here to talk about sexy nuns (ok that's probably a lie). I want to talk about murderous nuns, like the one in Killer Nun (1979).
After a Texas Chainsaw style title card proclaiming the film is based on fact, a brutal confessional session (with a director cameo), and some synchronized nun activities, we are introduced to Sister Gertrude (Anita Ekberg) the head nurse at a church-run hospital for the elderly. Gertrude apparently has had a long respected career in the establishment, but lately, she has started to become erratic and unreliable. She recently survived a successful surgery to remove a tumor, and while the doctors claim she is as cured as possible, she continues believing herself sick to the point of mania. Her relationships within the hospital begin to strain, as she butts heads with the lead doctor (Massimo Serato), demands to receive treatments for her perceived disorders, and her quality of work declines. It soon becomes unbearable when her bout of hypochondria begins to evolve itself into cruel actions towards the elderly patients and staff, and she develops a healthy morphine addiction. At one point, Gertrude destroys an old ladies dentures by stomping them into dust in front of her, and later she sneaks out at night engaging in anonymous sex with a man in a bar. Desperate, she contacts the Mother Superior (Alida Valli) and asks for help but only receives the advice that “nuns are meant to suffer”. The only person who seems sympathetic to her plight is her roommate (Paola Morra), who seems to like to watch her sleep and hates clothes. When patients start dying off in mysterious ways, everybody, including herself begins to suspect Gertrude may have something to do with it. Bodies start to pile, and she is left with visions of the murders --but is wounded Sister Gertrude truly the lunatic running around killing old people? I mean she is crazy ( and the old lady she de-toothed shortly after suffered a heart attack and died-- so yea ). But is there another more secretive crazy nun running around, or has she just tapped some kind of murderous autopilot?
As the introduction notes, the story is supposedly based on the true story of a Belgium sister who ran around a retirement home for a while killing patients and jacking their shit. From what I can tell (and I'm nowhere near an expert here), there was a nun/nurse named Cecile Bombeek who was said to have committed similar acts and had been arrested the year before the movie’s release. Cecile (also known as Sister Godfrida) had also changed drastically after having a successful brain tumor removed, went on to kill an unknown (>30) amount of people and dealt with a morphine addiction. There was also reported rumors of sordid affairs with other staff, but actual sources for the accounts seem a little scarce, mostly coming back to an article published in Time Magazine on March 13, 1978 titled CRIME: The Nun’s Story.  
The film was originally denounced as a Section 2 “Video Nasty” by self-appointed UK brain-cop Mary Whitehouse. It's not as visually brutal as some on the list, so I'm guessing that this had more to do with the subject matter (Whitehouse was definitely the religious type of nutbag). Killer Nun differs from the majority of its nunsploitation peers by taking place during the (modern) 70s as opposed to using the medieval era setting. Also, there is a noticeable lack of the Women in Prison cliches and/or supernatural elements that a lot of the subgenre employs. The film could easily be classified as a giallo mystery instead and puts stock in that style of an atmosphere. It's a story of psychological horror and intends to keep the viewer in doubt as to the killer's identity. As solely a giallo flick though, it would fall a little flat without featuring the truly creative kills that would rank it high within the genre. The story is heavily built around mental stability and makes several allusions to the slow but definite loss that comes with age. The references to fleeting mental states, among other things, hint at deeper meanings but never go for the critique of faith nearly as much as other sleazy nun flicks. It's not really a scary movie (unless you think about getting old too long), but mostly a fun, silly but fucked up ride. The film still takes itself very seriously at all times but moves the grim story at an engaging pace. Common nunsploitation and giallo cliches pop up throughout Killer Nun, but the blend is one of a kind.  It's possible that those looking for true examples of either may be disappointed, but in its failure, it is much more memorable than some of the more cookie cutter entries. It never really hits the terror or erotic notes it reaches for, but I find myself rooting for Sister Gertrude every time, crazy murderer or not
Most of the film is shot beautifully. The director Giulio Berruti creates almost stand-still shots worthy of paint at times, before breaking them apart for mean-spirited entertainment and contractual T and A. The film is made from shades of white and bright lighting, but it manages to hold to a consistent definition in its picture. It uses the bleached palate to create near optical illusion from hallways and rooms filled with draped sheets. The editing keeps the integrity of the shots, for the most part, and keeps the film moving at somewhat energetic speed. It brings with it a pretty snazzy soundtrack that moves from light church inspired tunes to Outer Limits-esque laser synth and even starts nearing catchy hippy jams.  Like giallo films, it uses mostly the obstructed or odd angles on the kills to keep things mysterious, and in doing so creates a dream-like feel for the violence. Despite its comparatively restrained nature, it still features a few awesomely gruesome moments, including a large needle being shoved into a closed eye. Possibly because of their sparsity, the gore effects look adequately realistic and avoid the extremely bright red blood of similar films. Voice dub on the English versions I have seen leaves little to be desired but might be magnified by the quality of acting.
Cult legend Anita Ekberg rocks the “sister” look like nobody's business and puts in a solid performance as Sister Gertrude. Ekberg, another actor of many career chapters (see Richard Harrison), broke into Hollywood in the 50s after a stint as a pinup model. She did a lot of work in cinema, evolving with the industry into the 70s. At some point, she was even up for the role of Honey Ryder in Dr. No (the role ended up going to Ursula Andress, see my Mountain of the Cannibal God review). Still beautiful as all fuck, the killer nun part is removed from her sex symbol norm for the most part. It instead comes out perfectly desperate, manic and cruel while staying in the neighboring realm of relatable. Paola Morra plays the overzealous homie/lover Sister Mathieu. She stands in for a majority of the film's eye-candy but plays a large role in the story’s progression as well. I haven't seen her in anything else to compare her performance, but she more than handles both jobs in this case. Massimo Serato (Women in Cell Block 7) and Daniele Dublino (Black Belly of the Tarantula) collectively make up the male doctor staff, each adequate but nothing that really sticks in the mind.  Alida Valli, AKA Miss Tanner from Suspiria (Am I going to have to start saying “the original Suspiria” now? shit, fuck you world), makes a quick appearance as the more often referenced “Mother Superior”. The role is brief and is pretty much Tanner dressed as a nun, but she's always awesome.
Killer Nun (aka Suor Omicidi) is blasphemous sleaze all the way, and as a bonus, it's fucking beautiful. It's not quite the blend of the giallo and nunsploitation you’d think you could get, but it's a great watch just the same. It makes an enjoyable slight break from the norm during a woman of the cloth themed movie night, while still checking all the boxes. I don't truly know why nuns make for great trashy movies, they just do. I'm sure there are some who would disagree, even passionately. If you are in fact one of these people-- write to let me know (in detail), because for whatever reason, knowing someone takes offense has a little something to do with my enjoyment. Just be warned I may not wear pants when I read it. People are strange.
 1h 25min | 1979
Director: Giulio Berruti 
Writers: Giulio Berruti, Enzo Gallo, Alberto Tarallo 

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