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Killer Nun
Tonight's Feature Presentation

KILLER NUN (1979)

Starring: Anita Ekberg, Paola Morra, Joe Dallesando, Massimo Serato

Written By: Giulio Berruti, Alberto Tarallo Directed By: Giulio Berruti

The Short Version

Not “from the secret files of the Vatican.”

Not quite as sleazy as you’re expecting, either.

The script can be said to oversell a bit.  (Nunsploitation fans may choose to say that quickly.)

Genuinely creepy at times.

Killer Nun stands pretty well as an off the wall thriller.


The Long Version

What Kind Of Cheese Is It?

GORGONZOLA.

A veined Italian cheese that may not look appetizing from the outside, but it’s actually pretty good when you try it.  Not as harsh as you might expect from its outer appearance, either.


Pairs Well With...

VALPOLICELLA.

An Italian red wine whose reputation has had some tarnish thrown its way, and which, especially when bought cheaply, can have something of a bloody tang to it.

“Don’t be too hard on me.  I was thinking of telling the cook to serve ice cream for dinner!”


It may seem counterintuitive to suggest that a movie which features:

  • Nuns on drugs.
  • Nuns skipping out of the sanctuary to go drink booze and have sex in the city.
  • Nuns not bothering to leave the sanctuary to have sex amongst themselves and proposition doctors.
  • Nuns lying about doctors and ruining said doctors’ careers to cover up their own crimes.
  • Nuns stealing.
  • Nuns belittling and psychologically torturing nursing home patients.
  • Nuns killing nursing home patients.
  • The Catholic Church ignoring all of this.

…is not as sleazy as you might think, and indeed is often accused of not going far enough on some of those elements.  Nevertheless, in the case of Killer Nun, it’s all true.

Scratching your head yet?

When most people think of nunsploitation (for those who think of it at all), they think of depraved, lust-crazed nuns who can’t wait to get under neophytes’ habits, whips and chains, and, more likely than not, that touch of Satan.  Add copious buckets of blood if the title hints at anything that might involve death.

Killer Nun goes to none of these extremes.  There’s no Satan, no whips, and no chains.  The blood, while present, is contained, cleaned better by a sponge than a mop.  And when the cougar nun finally does go for the neophyte, it’s only after the neophyte has been heavily telegraphed as begging for it, and the neophyte is already naked, since that’s how she sleeps and takes every opportunity to present herself to said cougar nun.  Oh, and the cougar/neophyte sex is off camera and thus left to your imagination.

Hence the little twilight zone that this movie falls into: considered a disappointment by many expecting full-on nunsploitation sleaze, and considered depraved by many who see the title Killer Nun and say, “Well, duh.”

As for me, I’m going to call it a stepping stone toward the “erotic thrillers” of the Skinamax era.  Taken as such, Killer Nun stands up surprisingly well.

We begin by meeting Sister Gertrude (Anita Ekberg, who’d been quite the bombshell in her day; a day largely passed by this point), nun in charge of the of the Good Sisters who serve as caregivers in what can best be considered a nursing home.  Though outwardly cheerful, Sister Gertrude harbors something of a stern reputation, and there are also whispers that there’s something not quite right with her.  Over time, we’ll discover that this is indeed true: prior to our story, she apparently had a brain tumor removed.  Though the surgery was quite successful, Sister Gertrude found herself addicted to painkillers afterward, and even now sneaks whatever morphine she can.  Whenever she’s off the sauce for too long, she starts to black out, hallucinate, and generally become more irritable.  Many of the staff know this, but either out of pity, lust, or simple dislike of scandal, they keep quiet about it.

As the movie progresses, so do the depths of Sister Gertrude’s mood swings and the extremities of her actions.  At one point, she stomps on a resident’s false teeth.  When the facility’s lead doctor (Massimo Serrato) decides to cut off her drugs, she conspires toward his ruination.  Needing to pawn something for cash in order to buy a street supply, Sister Gertrude takes the day off, trades her habit for something with a shorter skirt, and heads off to the city, where she not only gets her money, but also booze, cigarettes, and a quick anonymous screw against a wall.  Once she returns, her moods only get worse.   She even leaves a man who can’t walk at the bottom of a set of stairs and tells him to crawl back up himself.   And in the midst of all of this, residents of the nursing home are dying, often soon after pissing Sister Gertrude off.

You can see where this is leading, can’t you?

Both Director Giulio Berruti and his screenplay (which he co-wrote with Alberto Tarallo) certainly hope so, because they are doing everything they can to telegraph things and lead you on like a dog on a leash. 

The screenplay for Killer Nun is both strong and weak.  On the one hand, it’s tight, flows well, and doesn’t even have any real holes in it.  The story is well crafted, and there’s even some nuance to be found here, along with opportunities for genuine shock along the sidelines.  However, when it comes to leading the viewer, this script slaps things on with a trowel.  The metaphorical neon signs are so bright and the hints are poured on so thick that someone might as well just scream “Red Herring!” out loud and be done with it.  If you can’t see the twist coming, I know several people in the insurance industry who would love to speak to you.

Along with his handling of the trowel, however, Giulio Berruti does some interesting things in the Director’s chair.  The atmosphere of the movie directly correlates to Sister Gertrude’s mood swings and drug use at all times; when she’s on edge, so is the film.  When Sister Gertrude gets hysterical and starts to black out, the camera mimics both her tension and the precision of the evil events to follow.  And there is no way the viewer can miss Berruti’s wordless storytelling of how drugs have become Sister Gertrude’s personal substitute for God; the exact parallels between the communion sacrament and Gertrude getting high are too blatant even for those who aren’t versed in Catholic ritual (helped by a point of reference during the opening credits).  He knows what story he wants to tell, and he does it at exactly the pace each part of that story demands.

One place where he fails, however, is with the fact that he treats Anita Ekberg with too much reverence.  In an interview that you’ll find as a disc extra if you pick up the Blue Underground release of Killer Nun (and which is definitely worth watching after the movie), Berruti admits that he went out of his way to be “sensitive” in his portrayal of her.  Boiled down, what this means is that she’s never naked or even topless on camera; there’s always a sheet at the very least.  For nunsploitation fans, this is a grievous sin, but even ignoring that and taking Killer Nun as the standalone feature it really is, it’s blatantly obvious when Berruti has chosen to censor the way he makes his own film, and it’s jarring when it happens.  Crap or get off the pot.  You hired the lady to play a role, so have her play it.  The sheet just gets too obvious after a while.

And as for that sex you’re expecting…

As noted earlier, even though it’s made clear that there will be “nun on nun action,” it’s going to have to be in your mind, because the scene cuts away before said action can start.  Any sex that does happen on camera is hetero and of the “clothes mostly or entirely on” variety (including the anonymous encounter against a wall mentioned before), and by far the most memorable such scene involves an extremely elderly gent in a wheelchair getting it on in a rainstorm with a local prostitute.  I guarantee that once you’ve watched this scene, it will never leave your brain, no matter how much turpentine you use to try and make it do so.  Nearly all of the nudity comes from Paola Morra, whose character of Sister Mathieu is perfectly happy to parade naked around the room she shares with Sister Gertrude.  (Oh, and there’s a dead guy in a morgue shot, too.)

As for the violence you’re expecting, you do get it, minus the buckets.  Though there’s restraint shown largely by necessity (since we are of course not allowed to see the killer), there’s one scene that definitely falls into the “genuinely creepy” category.  Four words: needles in the face.  Ew.

The acting is hard to fairly call here, simply because I only have access to a dubbed English language print, and those who supply the dubbed voices make their own performances.  That said, those dubbed voices tend to go over the top in the “sell past the close” spirit of the screenplay, and they seem consistent with the body language of the actual performers, all of whom are certainly expressive enough.  While some (including Ekberg) incline toward melodrama and no one here exactly puts in a performance for the ages, nobody’s bad, either.  For a tight budget movie, Killer Nun appears to have gotten slightly better than what it paid for.

The music’s kinda groovy, too, and definitely adds to the overall atmosphere of the movie.

Oh, and it’s worth noting that despite the poster, the marketing tagline, and the “based on actual events” placard that runs at the beginning of the movie, Killer Nun is not “from the secret files of the Vatican.”  Giulio Berruti is adamant about pointing that out in the on-disc interview mentioned earlier, and in fact does relate the “actual events” the distributor’s marketing department was referring to.  They sound nothing like the story presented by Killer Nun, and Berruti wishes that people would stop promoting his movie that way.

Bottom line, while Killer Nun is never going to be used as a recruiting film for the Catholic Church, it’s not the sleazy nunsploitation flick most people would probably expect it to be, either.  Instead, it’s a pretty straight up murder thriller with some erotic overtones; a prelude to the stuff that would become the backbone of late night cable in the two decades that would follow.  Taken as such, it’s not bad.

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- Reviewed by Ziggy Berkeley, September, 2011


You can email Ziggy at ziggy@cinemaontherocks.com. You can also find us on Facebook.


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