Collins’ Crypt: Will Watching Nunsploitation Send Me To Hell?

BC's Catholic upbringing had him petrified of watching "blasphemy" as a kid. Now he doesn't care.

When I was a kid, enrolled in Catholic school from K-8, I just assumed everyone was Catholic. After all, until you get older and wiser, your reality = everyone's reality, so I had no reason to think otherwise. I remember asking my friend, who went to a public school (whatever THAT meant) when he went to church because I never saw him at ours, and it took me a while to fully comprehend the idea that not every kid had to "waste" an hour or so of their weekend to go to mass. Eventually I'd learn about other religions, of course, but I never found much interest in having one of them replace the Catholicism that slowly eroded throughout high school (no more school, just going to mass) and college (maybe I went on Christmas?), until I was pretty much done with the idea. I have nothing against it or any other religion, it's just not something I feel I need at this part of my life, and now that I'm a dad I want to make sure I don't force my beliefs (such as they are) onto my son. If he shows an interest in it, I'll be more than happy to take him to whatever service(s) he wants to attend as long as they're free (sorry, Scientology), but I think it'd be hypocritical to present Catholicism (or anything else) as "the way" when I myself don't even buy what they're selling.

It's something I thought a lot about when I was watching Severin's Blu-rays of The Other Hell (1981) and Dark Waters (1993), as both can be easily described as "Sacrilege!" (imagine that in a very stern nun or priest voice) and, had I seen them as a teenager, probably would have me convinced I was sending myself straight to hell by watching such unholiness. Like most people, I regret a lot of things about growing up and wish I had done this or that thing differently, and it's amazing/depressing how many things I avoided because my Catholic upbringing had conditioned me to believe that I would burn in hell for eternity for doing so. For as long as I can remember, adults (i.e. people who know everything) were telling me every school day (and then again at mass over the weekend) that I couldn't lie, I couldn't indulge, I couldn't even as much as get jealous that my neighbor had a Super Nintendo AND a Genesis (I only had the latter) without being at a very severe risk of eternal damnation. What if I snuck one of my mom's beers one night and got killed walking across the street a few days later, before I had a chance to go to confession? I'd die a MORTAL sinner ("honor thy mother and thy father" being one of the Ten Commandments) and be cast down alongside the serial killers and rapists! Better to not risk it! Now apply that fear to pretty much everything and you have a good idea of how warped a young impressionable mind can get, and how boring I was in high school.

So I feel it's better to just try to convince my kid to live by the golden rule and hope he doesn't do anything that's actually moronic, i.e. drink that beer then drive his car, instead of just watching horror movies in his room like I would. And that way, when he watches, say, The Other Hell, he can just enjoy its insanity for what it is, instead of having a weird catharsis like I did. I believe I mentioned before that the nuns at my school called me stupid because I was left-handed, so when the film showcases one of its several attacks on nuns, I cheered a little inside. I obviously couldn't do much beyond pout when Sister Alice (the worst of the lot!) insulted my intelligence just because I happened to prefer one hand over the other, and I'm sure I'm not the only one to receive such treatment, if not worse (some of those Sisters were old enough to probably come from the "whack the knuckles with a ruler" days), so I'm glad the "nunsploitation" sub-genre exists for people like me to work some shit out and champion such fictional behavior. 

To be fair, neither Other Hell nor Dark Waters are exactly landmark films in the sub-genre, and some even argue they don't really belong to it at all. For starters, there's a minimum of sexual content in both films, whereas the real classics dive deep into such perversion. Ken Russell's The Devils is a classy example, but naturally there are plenty of Italian entries that drop the pretense and offer plenty of carefree sleaze, such as The Nun and The Devil and Killer Nun (a rare entry that's set in the present day instead of the usual 17th or 18th century settings). Lesbianism is a frequent theme (as their repressed sexuality springs forward and there are often few/no men around to "assist", just the other nuns), and murders are pretty common as well. The Other Hell, however, is a straight up murder mystery with added supernatural elements that just happens to be set in a convent, with nary a lesbian or misused rosary bead in sight. Indeed, most nunsploitation films aren't even really horror movies in the traditional sense; there are moments of startling violence but most are more exploitative drama than anything that would interest the likes of Fangoria (or me, to be honest). 

The film is credited to Bruno Mattei (under his usual pseudonym Stefan Oblowsky), but according to his commentary, Claudio Fragasso (credited as the writer) really shot around 80% of it himself. Not that he is bitter about it; the two worked together often and this was kind of par for the course in Italy at the time - in fact, the pair would go on to "finish" Zombie 3 for Lucio Fulci a short time later, again shooting more of the movie than the credited filmmaker (an oral history of these movies would be fascinating and hilarious, but also hard to follow since so many of their memories are terrible and they often contradict one another). As you can imagine, such a wonky production (one of two films Mattei was making simultaneously) is probably to blame for the film's many baffling moments, including an epilogue that is ostensibly explaining the plot but really just making it more confusing, with dialogue delivered by an actor whose name neither Fragasso nor audio commentary moderator Federico Caddeo can identify.

But this sort of insanity is probably why it's hard to really place the film alongside the others I mentioned. The Devils, for instance, is rooted in fact and translated through Ken Russell's usual provocative lens - there is no such semblance of reality here, which makes it hard for me to imagine anyone getting their wimple in a bunch about it. Sure, I doubt anyone employed by the church would be giggling at Fragasso's narrative (which, among other things, involves a nun scalding an infant in a pot of water, believing it to be the spawn of Satan), but this is a movie with creepy mannequins hanging from the ceiling and zombies that come out of nowhere. Getting truly offended the way one might at The Devils or Killer Nun seems unlikely, because it's too outlandish - there needs to be a certain level of realism, I think, or else you sound like more of a killjoy blowhard than you already are. It'd be like protesting kids' cartoons for their inaccurate depiction of how quickly one can just head off into outer space.

Ignoring any potential outrage or deep-seeded resentment about the Church's teachings, The Other Hell mostly works as a minor "greatest hits" of Italian horror at the time, offering a few death scenes that would feel at home in a giallo while tossing in a few zombies that were all the rage then, with a pinch of post-Exorcist ripoff flavor for good measure. Some dialogue scenes go on too long and it's never particularly scary, but it's endearing all the same, with a few scenes that would have a packed grindhouse cheering (I particularly liked when a man asks "Who are you?" to the two red LED lights that are used to depict the devil, and it answers "The devil!" before immolating him). I doubt few, if any, people in the world would name it as their favorite Mattei or Fragasso film, but if you're a fan of either man's filmography (ironically or otherwise), you'll find it fits directly in their wheelhouse.

Nuns are about the only thing it has in common with Dark Waters, which Severin released on the same day and more or less advertised them together. It also features a number of scenes that can make "When Nuns Attack!" highlight reels, but the story is more like The Wicker Man filtered through a Lovecraftian tale of an ancient evil that some folks are trying to keep at bay (it also has a touch of The Sentinel, which made me happy). There's even less to get worked up about here when it comes to the blasphemous elements, as it amounts to very little and the fact that the "antagonists" are nuns is largely incidental. They could be standard monks or just random people unified by nothing more than a particular brand of hat for all that it really matters to the plot. Therefore, even if I saw the film when it was released in 1993, at the height of my "everything I do will get me in trouble with God and I'll burn!" terror and also when I was really branching out as a horror fan, I don't think I'd be particularly worried about the long-term repercussions of watching it.

I'd probably be confused, however. I knew nothing of Wicker Man or Lovecraft back then, and even writer/director Mariano Baino admits the film can be a bit needlessly obtuse at times, so I likely would have found it impenetrable had I watched it back when my tastes were so far from refined (no jokes). Long stretches of the film unfold without dialogue, and there are a number of elements that still have me scratching my head now, like the unexplained dude on the boat who likes to eat raw fish. But luckily, I never even heard of it until Severin announced their Blu-ray release, allowing me to see it new rather than "revisit" it as someone who spent the past 20+ years thinking of the movie as an incoherent mess. In fact I liked it even more than The Other Hell (which I liked enough to include in my book!), as the slow burn reveal of who or what is after our heroine (the lovely Louise Salter, making her debut in a too-short acting career) is right up my alley these days - I enjoy a good mystery more than a properly high body count. And it's like I see a lot of movies I would/could compare favorably to Wicker Man (even its own sequel, the horrid Wicker Tree, doesn't qualify), so that's always a plus. 

It'll be interesting to see how my son approaches horror films (if he wants to watch them at all) as he gets older, presumably without those dangling fears of eternal damnation weighing on his mind. Unless he decides at a young age that he'd like to go to church, he won't have the Ten Commandments seared into his brain, and thus will be free of the terror I experienced whenever I accidentally (or, in an act of teenage rebellion, purposely) broke one. I've said on numerous occasions that horror films don't particularly frighten me the way they should, and I usually chalk it up to mere desensitization, but I also occasionally wonder if it's just that nothing Freddy or Jason ever did held a candle to the idea that I could be spending eons roasting on an open flame because I missed church ("Keep holy the sabbath day" - and yes, my mom made us go to confession to tell the priest we missed mass the two or three times it ever happened in my first eighteen or so years on this planet). It's not that I no longer believe in the concept of heaven and hell, I just don't let it inform my day to day - if God deems me as bad as Hitler because I like to sit around playing video games on Sunday morning instead of listening to a few Bible readings, so be it. One can't go through life worrying if watching a Bruno Mattei movie counts as a mortal sin, nor should anyone practice a religion that deems it one.

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