[aka Deadly Habit]

"Sister, stop it! You’ve lost the grace of God. Yours is a malady. You must find God again. You’re a sinner – I can’t absolve you…."

Director: Giulio Berruti
Starring: Anita Ekberg, Paola Morra, Massimo Serato, Lou Castel, Joe Dallesandro, Daniele Dublino, Laura Nucci, Antonia Patriaca, Maria Sofia Amendola, Alida Valli
Screenplay: Giulio Berruti and Alberto Tarallo

Synopsis: A nun confesses thoughts of vengeance and murder to a horrified priest, who denies her absolution…. At a Catholic hospice, Dr Porret (Massimo Serato) sends the head nurse, Sister Gertrude (Anita Ekberg), for a scalpel and thread. As she reaches for the scalpel, she freezes…. Porret asks her what is wrong. She tells him bitterly that he already knows, and insists that Sister Mathieu (Paola Morra) take over her duties. Later, Gertrude hesitates while changing a drip, staring down at the patient who gasps helplessly in her oxygen tent. Porret arrives just in time. He berates Gertrude, who tells him that she’s ill, that she suffers from migraines and blurred vision; that she can’t control her actions, and sometimes has blackouts. She begs him for morphine. Porret tells her that the operation to remove her brain tumour was a complete success, and that her symptoms are all in her mind. Gertrude pleads with him to admit her as a patient and, when Porret refuses, threatens to report him to the Reverend Mother (Alida Valli). She then does so, but the Reverend Mother too insists that Gertrude’s operation was a success and that she is imagining things. At dinner, Gertrude flies into a rage when she sees that an elderly female patient, Josephine (Maria Sofia Amendola), has put her false teeth in a glass of water at the table. As the scene escalates, a nurse, Eliane (Antonia Patriaca), runs to get Sister Mathieu. She is stopped by a patient, Pierre (Lou Castel), who points silently into a bathroom, where Mathieu is burning a medical record, including some head x-rays. That night, Gertrude weeps to Mathieu, her roommate, that everyone hates her. Mathieu touches Gertrude’s hand tentatively, murmuring that she loves her…. An urgent call from Porret takes Gertrude to Josephine’s room; the old woman has suffered a heart attack. Gertrude goes to prepare an injection, but counts ten before beginning her task, and Josephine dies. Sending Eliane from the room, Gertrude rifles Josephine’s possessions, stealing a diamond ring. She goes into town, where she changes into civilian clothes. She sells the ring, visits a bar, and has sex with an anonymous pick-up. Back at the hospice, Gertrude hides vials of morphine in her drawer. Meeting the hospice’s director (Daniele Dublino), Gertrude lodges a complaint against Porret, claiming that he is misdiagnosing his cases, and insists that she can no longer share her duties with him. Later, Gertrude frets over what she has done, muttering that if Porret would only believe her…. She goes to her drawer, and before long is slipping a needle into her arm. Gertrude collapses, hallucinating, and an elderly priest comes to her aid. Gertrude sees a jumbled nightmare of images. The priest falls at her feet, his skull shattered by repeated heavy blows. His body is pushed from a window. As someone shrieks that Father Janot has killed himself, Gertrude runs into the courtyard to examine the body, then looks up to find the hospice’s inmates staring down at her accusingly from their windows….

Comments: Always willing and eager to expand my cinematic horizons, I decided it was finally time that I took on the weird and disturbing sub-genre of the exploitation film generally known as "nunsploitation". There’s tendency to date this odd phenomenon from the release of Ken Russell’s The Devils, and in movie terms that’s more or less true; but outrageous stories based upon the misdeeds of nuns go back much, much further than that. In the late eighteenth century, Denis Diderot published (posthumously) a novel called La Religieuse, which set the tone for nearly everything that was to follow. In it, a girl named Suzanne is forced to take vows against her will. At first treated kindly by the Mother Superior (who soon dies, naturally), Suzanne finds herself caught between two senior nuns, one of whom treats her with hatred and cruelty, the other of whom wants to love her a little too much, if you get my drift. In the novel’s most notorious scene, the latter is thrown into a state of extreme excitement by being allowed to embrace Suzanne, who in her narrative describes her companion’s, uh, symptoms in quite clinical detail, while at the same time remaining innocently unaware of their significance. (The novel has been filmed twice: in 1965 by Jacques Rivette, under the title of La Religieuse, which was banned outright in France for its anti-clerical tone; and in 1986 by Joe D’Amato as Convent Of Sinners, which I’m told is – surprise! – one of the sleaziest of all nunsploitation films.)

In literary terms, nunsploitation reached its pinnacle in Britain during the early nineteenth century, with the "Gothic novel" craze that followed the publication of Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries Of Udolpho. People encountering those novels today are in for a startling experience: many of them – which were written by "nice" people for "nice" people, remember – are underlined by a streak of anti-Catholicism so vicious and hateful it could make your blood run cold. The plots vary, but certain details are universal. Firstly, next to no-one becomes a nun out of genuine religious conviction – and if anyone does evince commitment to her vows, you can bet she’ll be dead by the end of the novel. In this bizarre literary world, convents are full of women forced there against their wills: to cover up the disgrace of an illegitimate child; to break up a love affair; for financial reasons. The Mothers Superior, who have obtained their positions either through political pull or blackmail, are invariably either sadistic psychopaths or (more frequently) nymphomaniacs – and occasionally both. A popular opening scene has the novel’s hero attending a church service, and falling in love on sight with the heroine (who is usually a novice, and therefore technically "available"); while at the same time, being fallen in lust with by the Mother Superior. Inevitably spurning her advances, the hero generally finds himself in the hands of the Inquisition on a trumped-up charge, sometimes (in the more venomous stories) undergoing torture while the Mother Superior looks on in evil glee. Meanwhile, the unfortunate novice is also suffering for her inadvertent "crime", usually ending up under the looming threat of A Fate Worse Than Death – the threat generally coming from her Father Confessor, who has fallen in lust with her….

(The taste for kind of novel did eventually die away. Ironically, there was simultaneously a call for the founding of Anglican convents, which were desired not so much upon religious grounds, but rather as a way of genteelly disposing of the massive surplus of women with which England was "burdened" following the end of the Napoleonic Wars….)

So you see, nunsploitation is nothing new. The only difference, really, is that these days we can see what before was only, more or less explicitly, described; and as was the case with the novels that preceded them, while certain facets remain fairly constant – murder, drug abuse, sado-masochism, and above all, lesbian sex - the tone of these films varies tremendously. Some of them would be offensive by any standards; others are shocking only for who is committing the various transgressions. As I intimated earlier, I’m a, er, novice in this field of cinema, though I’ve read about it a good deal (and would recommend Steve Fentone’s AntiCristo for those not easily shocked). In fact, although I do have a copy of The Sinful Nuns Of St Valentine’s tucked away somewhere (thank you, World Movies!), Killer Nun is the very first nunsploitation film I’ve ever seen; and while I can’t be certain, my feeling is that I’ve had a fairly gentle introduction to the genre. The film did manage to get itself banned in Italy – chiefly, I suspect because the powers-that-be were ticked off over its "From the secret files of the Vatican!" tag – and also, thanks to one brief scene, landed on the notorious British "Video Nasties" list; but there’s really nothing here that’s all that shocking, particularly not by the standards of Italian exploitation films. The main features of Killer Nun are its series of brutal murders which are, on the whole, more interestingly presented than anything else in the film; a couple of sex scenes more repulsive than arousing; a tangible sense of disgust with the human body; a cynical, downbeat ending; and above all, a pervasive air of corruption that is both moral and spiritual.

Killer Nun is not a good film, but it’s short enough (just over eighty minutes) to avoid wearing out its welcome; while its mixture of copious violence and nudity, occasional imaginative touches, and outright tastelessness ensures that it remains watchable. Although its depiction of religion is, inevitably, utterly negative, I suspect that this film is actually a lot lighter handed in this respect than many of its ilk, as the Church is presented more as insensitive and misguided than actively evil – at least until the story’s denouement. (Killer Nun is prefaced – as nunsploitation films almost always are – with a claim that it is based on "real events" that took place in "a certain European country". Intriguingly, when the film was first released to video, the blurb, rather than beating around the bush, insisted that the story was based on "a real incident that took place in Belgium". Facts, lies, or anti-Belgian prejudice, I wonder?) As is typical of the film’s vintage and genre, there’s not a single likeable person to be found in Killer Nun. On the contrary, the characters are without exception despicable – from the Reverend Mother who, while contentedly stuffing herself with chocolates, tells the frantic Gertrude that "being a nun means suffering" before hanging up on her pleas for help; to the weaselly hospice director, who panics under threats from Gertrude and sacks the blameless Dr Porret, and whose only response to the string of murders is to beg the police to "protect the church’s reputation"; to the new doctor, Patrick Rowland, whose righteous indignation at his predecessor’s treatment and the discovery that Mathieu has been stealing morphine from the dispensary to feed Gertrude’s habit completely evaporates once Mathieu goes down on her knees before him – and not to pray for his soul; and to Mathieu herself, who claims to love Gertrude, but ultimately betrays her. Against this backdrop, the drug-addled, demented Sister Gertrude becomes, if not sympathetic, at least pitiable. The film’s depiction of the beleaguered nun is, I think, a touch more ambiguous than was actually intended. While the overt implication is that Gertrude is an addict, pure and simple, who is using her medical history to justify her behaviour to herself, you do finally begin to wonder whether she isn’t right about the state of her own health, given the off-hand way in which her concerns are waved away – and who is doing the waving. In any case, the people around Gertrude treat her with such callousness and disregard (even if she’s not physically ill, she clearly needs psychiatric help, as the hospice staff should recognise), that no matter how ugly, cruel or dishonest her actions, the viewer is rather inclined to regard her as more sinned against than sinning.

This sense of Gertrude as victim is immeasurably heightened by the film’s giallo-like murder plot. It takes no effort at all on the part of the viewer to figure out that poor Gertrude isn’t the real killer, and very little more to figure out who is; but Giulio Berruti nevertheless insists on treating his material as if the whole thing were some big mystery, and this approach actually forces the film to be far more interesting than its subject matter warrants. The murders, which unsurprisingly coincide with Gertrude’s drug hazes, are shot in a manner both clichéd and arresting. While the hallucinatory style is just what you would expect, Berruti manages some genuinely startling juxtapositioning of imagery in these scenes. This is particularly so during the first murder, when an elderly priest getting his head staved in with the base of a lamp is rapidly intercut with flashes of Gertrude’s eyes in close-up, of splattering blood, of the nun’s operation (she is caressed by her mother as she lies with her brain exposed), and of her fondling a dead, naked man. If Killer Nun’s plot is rudimentary, the film remains visually intriguing throughout, with isolated images of both beauty and depravity (a dead body suspended in a laundry shaft, Mathieu naked but for a single silk stocking, obediently admitting that she is "a whore of a nun"), unexpected touches such as the inmate’s dinner-table rebellion (we see their pushed away soup plates zig-zagging into shot as the camera pulls back along the table), and some scenes of undiluted sadism. One of these involves the crutch-bound patient, Pierre, who is abducted by Gertrude and carried off to the hospice’s basement. When he refuses to tell her who has been accusing her of murder, Gertrude removes his crutches and leaves him at the bottom of the stairs. In an agonisingly drawn-out sequence, Pierre defiantly hauls himself to the top of the stairs – only to be kicked to death by the real killer when he gets there. Most horrible of all, however, is the torture-murder of an elderly female inmate, who was unwise enough to reveal that she "saw something" on one of the critical nights, and who was about to tell what it was – which provokes the killer into an attack upon her eyes and mouth with pins and a scalpel…. (It was this scene, which I understand originally ended with some graphic eye violence, that got Killer Nun into trouble with the British censors. I say "understand" because my print was missing the scene in question – leaving me torn between indignation at the cutting, and involuntary gratitude at being spared.)

With the casting of one-time sex symbol Anita Ekberg in the lead role, it is possible to look at Killer Nun as Italy’s answer to the American "veteran actress goes bonkers" horror film trend. It is difficult to know just how to react to Ekberg’s presence in this film. On one hand, you just know that Giulio Berruti is counting on the fact that we all have memories of Ekberg’s romp in the Trevi Fountain embedded in our consciousness, and that we will be unable to refrain from making unflattering comparisons between the actress then and now. The way she is used here is "exploitation" in the most discomforting sense of the word. That said, Berruti does not, in fact, exploit Ekberg as much as he had the opportunity to do – or perhaps he lacked the courage of his convictions. When Gertrude has brief, anonymous sex with the man she picks up in a bar, both parties remain fully clothed (well, you know – almost); and when she finally responds to Mathieu’s advances – is this a first and only for a nunsploitation film!? – the lesbian action is kept offscreen. (But don’t despair, skin-watchers! If Ekberg herself is kept concealed, the much younger and slimmer Paola Morra is required to display her assets at regular intervals throughout.) Still, for all the underlying unpleasantness of this, there’s no denying that Ekberg’s performance in Killer Nun is both better than the film deserves and extremely courageous - she "goes bonkers" with great fervour. There is an indelible sequence early in the story when Gertrude "entertains" the hospice’s inmates during dinner with an account of the martyrdom of an early Christian missionary ("….they pulled her teeth out and filled the bleeding sockets with boiling oil….pierced her tongue with a red-hot needle….slit her cheeks with sharp blades…."). The recitation comes to an abrupt halt when the nun sees that an elderly patient has slipped her false teeth into a glass of water. When Gertrude reacts by throwing the offending dentures onto the floor and jumping up and down on them, shrieking, "Disgusting! Revolting!" it is a sight not easily forgotten. Also memorable, in a sleazy sort of way, are Gertrude’s sexual humiliation of Mathieu ("If I am going to sleep with a woman, she has to wear silk stockings!"), and her "window-shopping" for a potential sex partner in the bar in town. (She rejects one prospect as "too Italian (!)", and when asked by a waiter what she’ll have, blurts, "A man!") In one of the film’s funnier scenes, Gertrude "punishes" the inmates for their attitude towards her by putting them through a rather unlikely exercise class. Although this consists of nothing more than the patients clapping their hands over their heads, then at waist-height, Dr Rowland charges in as if she were forcing her elderly charges to drop and give her twenty ("Are you MAD!?"). And yet, balancing these scenes, there are a few scattered moments when Anita Ekberg makes us see another side to Gertrude; what she was before illness and addiction ruined her life, perhaps: responding to a beautiful sunny day with her head thrown back and a warm smile; or good-naturedly joining in the patients’ game of "They say---", even though she knows very well that she will end up as their butt (and ultimately ends up as something much worse). By slipping these shadings into Gertrude’s character, Ekberg manages to infuse this fairly tacky exercise in exploitation with a hint of genuine tragedy.

If nunsploitation films run the gamut from sincere attempts to be meaningful and confrontational, not just exploitative (Flavia The Heretic, The Nuns Of Sant’Arcangelo), to the irredeemably trashy and vile (Sister Emanuelle, anyone?), Killer Nun sits squarely in the middle of the field. Too offensive for the casual viewer, yet too staid for the exploitation connoisseur, Killer Nun is a thoroughly depressing and cynical little film, full of human beings behaving in the ugliest and cruelest way imaginable, and with the mainstays of so-called "respectable" society – the Church, the police, the hospital system – depicted as self-interested, callous and hypocritical. Still, it is possible – if you happen to be in a generous mood – to find some virtues in the film. Anita Ekberg’s performance as Gertrude is far enough over the top to be unforgettable; and she is well supported by an interesting exploitation film cast. Aside from the presence of Ekberg herself, the aspect of Killer Nun perhaps most likely to raise eyebrows is the cameo appearance of Alida Valli as the cold-blooded Reverend Mother. While by this stage of her career Valli had racked up an impressive horror movie résumé (Eyes Without A Face, Lisa And The Devil, The Antichrist, Suspiria), it is tempting in context to view her casting here as an oblique reference to the sex ‘n’ drugs ‘n’ murder scandal that brought her career in Hollywood to such an abrupt conclusion. (You see, that’s the problem with making exploitation films – everything you do is suspect!) Backing up these two actresses is a trio of Italian film mainstays – Massimo Serato, Lou Castel, Daniele Dublino – whose faces you’ll probably know, even if you can’t remember where you saw them last. (This is particularly true of Serato, whose extraordinary career spanned pepla, spaghetti westerns, gialli, horror films and just about every other kind of film you can imagine.) And just to put the icing on the cake, Joe Dallasandro pops up as the sanctimonious Dr Rowland, who means to devote himself to the welfare of the hospice’s patients, fight for the good name of his predecessor, and catch a murderer – just as soon as he gets through fooling around with a nubile young nun. Director Giulio Berruti’s handling of his visuals is much stronger than his handling of his actors; and in this aspect of the film, he receives admirable support from the cinematography of Antonio Maccoppi (who, by the bye, also shot the jaw-dropping Nude For Satan); and from the score of Alessandro Alessandroni, which with its intermingling of music and chorals provides a fitting backdrop to the film’s frequent hallucinatory images.