Arrow Video: Killer Nun (1979) - Reviewed

Nunsploitation and giallo, though disparate exploitation thriller genres in film, remained increasingly popular and relentlessly controversial in the Italian cinematic marketplace.  With occasional writer-director Giulio Berruti’s final film Killer Nun however, it finds the two genres spliced together as one uniquely sleazy hybrid sporting an overqualified cast, plentiful sex & nudity and enough violence, blood and gore to be banned outright during the heyday of the ‘video nasty’ era of censorship. 

Re-released by Arrow Video, while this Anita Ekberg (yes, you read that correctly) starring softcore sleaze and murder fest doesn’t quite reach the heights of such nunsploitation epics as Ken Russell’s The Devils, it serves up enough giallo thrills and hallucinatory sequences along the way to keep exploitation horror filmgoers satisfied.

The lurid present-day set “true story” of Sister Gertrude (Ekberg of Fellini’s La Dolce Vita), a demented and hysterical nun working in a mental institution.  On her own private downward spiral of sex and heroin abuse, Gertrude becomes the prime suspect in a series of murders plaguing the institution as others take notice of her increasingly erratic behavior.  Co-starring Flesh for Frankenstein star Joe Dallesandro in a basically thankless role as a young doctor new to the institution and Paola Morra as nun/lesbian lover Sister Mathieu, Killer Nun in addition to mixing elements of giallo and nunsploitation also serves up the psychological thriller with a number of surreal dream sequences chronicling the unraveling of Sister Getrude’s fragile mind.

While overtly sleazy in nature including scenes of the classy Ekberg in the same shot as a naked man as well some fairly messy sex scenes peppering the piece, Killer Nun for all of its tawdriness is held together by Ekberg’s committed performance who makes the troubled (even murderous?) nun a sympathetic if not fascinating character.  Whatever this film’s intentions are, Ekberg plays it straight and makes you the viewer invest in the story.  Ekberg has always been a glamour queen and even at her age in the film still had the ability to stop people in their tracks.  Seeing her channeling herself into such a troubled and, at times, grotesque character is remarkable in it’s own right even if the film itself is tantamount to a throwaway effort.

Benefiting the film a great deal is the strange and experimental score by famed composer Alessandro Alessandroni, creating a soundscape that accurately reflects the decaying psyche of the central protagonist.  It also helps this is a handsomely shot piece thanks to The Red Nights of the Gestapo cinematographer Antonio Maccoppi who frequently indulges in extreme close-ups and deep zooms of Ekberg’s face, sometimes zeroing in on her eyes.  Visually it’s a beautiful film to look at when it isn’t focused on scalpel murders and brain surgeries.

Killer Nun is unabashed filthy dirty exploitation but it also makes no bones about what it is either.  As a psychological character study Killer Nun isn’t terribly complicated but is anchored by a such a strong central performance we’re caught up in the drama of Sister Gertrude’s downfall anyway.  Yes this is about what you would expect from nunsploitation and while it clearly aims low, there’s just enough classiness in this production to still plant itself firmly on your cinematic radar.  Not the pinnacle of nunsploitation but a wild and entertaining enough entry to still make it worth a look!

--Andrew Kotwicki