Killer Nun Arrow Blu-ray Review
Updated: Jan 29
Blu-ray Release: October 15, 2019
Audio: Italian and English LPCM 1.0 Mono
Subtitles: English SDH
Run Time: (Two cuts) 87/89 minutes
Director: Giulio Berruti
Following treatment for a brain tumor, a rigid nun named Sister Gertrude (Anita Ekberg) discovers the depraved pleasure of drug addiction, torture, and sexual degradation. Meanwhile, a sadistic murderer stalks the halls of the hospital where Gertrude works and suspicion falls upon the disturbed sister’s shoulders.
This review contains vague spoilers.
Perverted, possessed, and/or evil nun stories have likely been around as long as Catholic women have donned the habit and pledged themselves to God. In the film world, naughty nuns have existed since the silent era, when Benjamin Christensen’s occult pseudo-documentary Häxan (1922) portrayed a series of sinful sister antics, but it wasn’t until Ken Russell’s masterpiece The Devils (itself also based on a true story, 1971) shocked censors and titillated international audiences that the concept of Nunsploitation took off. Spurred by the equally “beloved” Nazisploitation genre, ‘70s Nunsploitation was usually an extension of the Women in Prison (WIP) genre, including sadistic/masochistic Padres in place of sadistic/masochistic prison wardens and innocent prisoners/nuns driven to lesbianism. Giulio Berruti’s Killer Nun (Italian: Suor Omicidi and Deadly Habits) is probably the best-known Italian entry in nunsploitation’s golden era, followed closely by Gianfranco Mingozzi’s Flavia the Heretic (Italian: Flavia, la monaca musulmana; aka: Rebel Nun, 1974) and Bruno Mattei & Claudio Fragasso’s ultra-trashy The Other Hell (Italian: L'altro inferno, 1980). It has remained in the public eye – or at least the cult move equivalent to the public eye – thanks to its no-nonsense English language title (there’s no mistaking what the plot will entail), its A-level B-movie cast, and the fact that it was (for a time) banned on British home video as part of the Director of Public Prosecutions’ (DPP’s) “Video Nasties.”
The cast is fronted by Swedish pin-up-model-turned-actress Anita Ekberg. Ekberg had appeared alongside Audrey Hepburn and Henry Fonda in King Vidor’s War and Peace (1956) and later became an arthouse favorite when she worked with Marcello Mastroianni in Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vida (1960). Her career had slowed considerably by the end of the ‘70s, but Killer Nun uses her waning star to its advantage, tempering her cruelty with the vulnerability of her has-been status, similar to the way Robert Aldrich’s Whatever Happened to Baby Jane (1962) used Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. It’s not quite a ‘hagsploitation’ performance, but it’s not too far removed. Ekberg also channels Louise Fletcher’s Oscar-winning One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) performance, giving audiences a glimpse of what Nurse Ratched might look like if she gave into her most salacious impulses. Alida Valli appears in a smaller capacity as the Mother Superior. Valli is one of the greatest cult actresses of all time, playing important roles in Alfred Hitchcock's The Paradine Case (1947), Carol Reed's The Third Man (1949), Michelangelo Antonioni's Il Grido (1957), Georges Franju’s Eyes Without a Face (French: Les Yeux sans visage, 1960), Mario Bava’s Lisa and the Devil (1974), and Dario Argento’s Suspiria (1977). Paola Morra plays the young Sister Mathieu and was hired specifically for her sexy nun pedigree, having already appeared in Walerian Borowczyk’s Behind Convent Walls (Italian: Interno di un convento – I believe the Polish director’s only Italian film) the year before Killer Nun (in 1978). Also of note is Joe Dallesandro as Dr. Patrick Roland. Like Morra’s, his participation is no coincidence, as Killer Nun intentionally recalls the cheeky sleaze of the Paul Morrissey-directed, Andy Warhol-produced movies he often appeared in, such as Flesh (1968), Trash (1970), and the horror double-feature Blood for Dracula (1974) and Flesh for Frankenstein (1973), both of which were made in Italy.
The Video Nasties cred is less justified. The British censors weren’t as concerned with nunsploitation as you might think, given their puritan stance against connecting sex, violence, and blasphemy. From a genre standpoint, they tended to focus on slashers, Nazisploitation, and Italian cannibal movies. The closest thing to Killer Nun is probably Michael Armstrong’s witch torture movie, Mark of the Devil (German: Hexen bis aufs Blut gequält, 1970), which was never officially banned (as part of the Section 3 list, it could still be confiscated by authorities), but only because its unprosecuted sequel, Adrian Hoven’s Mark of the Devil Part II (German: Hexen geschändet und zu Tode gequält, 1973), has a nun subplot. Of course, The Other Hell had barely been released in UK cinemas at the time of the Video Nasties. Moreover, one of the most famous banned films, Ken Russell’s The Devils (which remained unseen in an uncut form in Britain until 2012) is arguably the originator of the nunsploitation formula. In terms of the quality of violence, Killer Nun is no Cannibal Holocaust (1980). It takes nearly 35 minutes for the first gory moment to occur – a nightmare sequence in which Gertrude nearly ODs on morphine and hallucinates images of her own open-skull brain surgery as one of her charges is killed and thrown out of a window. The only other particularly gruesome moment is the prolonged needle torture/scalpal murder of a witness. It’s possible that the sexual content was to blame, including an elderly man having wheelchair sex with a nurse, implied lesbian cavorting, and full-frontal male and female nudity (do nuns really sleep in the nude?).
Personally, I find Killer Nun more interesting than the majority of nunsploitation films (at least those created exclusively for the grindhouse market), because it is, at its heart, a gimmicky giallo movie. If you remove the baggage that is tied to the parish hospital setting, Killer Nun is a bizarre murder mystery and Gertrude’s psychoneurotic odyssey into sexual deviancy and possible physical violence mirrors that of many giallo heroines. While exploring gender in giallo, critic/historian Michael Mackenzie divided the genre into M-giallo (as in male) and F-giallo (as in female) categories (Gender, Genre and Sociocultural Change in the Giallo: 1970-1975, 2013) and Killer Nun fits his F-giallo definition – she’s essentially a passive force in her own story, she’s ultimately a victim herself, and she ends the film under the protection of a secondary male protagonist. She matches the classic archetype with direct lineage found in Lucio Fulci’s giallo heroines/victims, specifically A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin’s (Italian: Una lucertola con la pelle di donna, 1971) Carol Hammond (Florinda Bolkan), who is so hysterical that she’s not even sure if she’s a killer, and The New York Ripper’s (Italian: Lo squartatore di New York, 1982) Jane Lodge (Alexandra Delli Colli), an aging upper-class sexpot whose carnal pursuits ultimately doom her. While it seems unlikely, Brian De Palma may have drawn inspiration for his giallo-esque triller, Dressed to Kill (1980), from a scene where Gertrude ditches her habit and picks up a random man in the city (Fulci certainly borrow aspects of De Palma’s film for New York Ripper, after all). Aside from esoteric character elements, there are plenty of concrete giallo devices to go around, such as elaborate murder set-pieces, obvious red herrings, and malevolent gloved hands – though these are pink, rather than the traditional black. Ekberg herself adds a somewhat obscure giallo connection, as well, as the star of Gerd Oswald’s Screaming Mimi (1958), which was based on the same novel (Fredric Brown’s The Screaming Mimi, pub: 1949) that Dario Argento drew from when he wrote The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (Italian: L'uccello dalle piume di cristallo, 1970).
As I already mentioned, Killer Nun was briefly banned on UK home video, but it was even harder to find in North America. I can’t find evidence of any VHS or Beta release here, which, if true, would mean that Blue Underground’s 2004 anamorphic DVD was the film’s video debut in this region. That was followed in 2012 by a Blu-ray upgrade, also from Blue Underground. Arrow’s new transfer was created using a 2K scan of the original 35mm camera negative. The disc also gives the viewer a choice between the Italian and English export versions, though the only difference is an extended text crawl at the end of the movie. I still have access to the Blue Underground disc, so I’ve included two comparison sliders (Arrow transfer left, BU transfer right) along with additional screencaps from the Arrow disc.
The 2K remaster is better framed, minus the BU disc’s slight windowboxing, features more naturalistic colors (especially the pinker skin tones and cooler greens), and its black levels aren’t crushed. Like many of Blue Undergrounds earlier Italian-based releases, the old transfer also had problems with CRT noise. The remaster fixes the issue without using excessive DNR to flatten natural grain. Improvements aside, there are still more digital artifacts here than seen on a typical Arrow Blu-ray, including occasional snowy grain clumps and telecine wobble over a couple of short sequences. The real issue for both the Arrow and Blue Underground discs is that so much of cinematographer Antonio Maccoppi’s photography embraces the sterile whiteness of the nuns’ habits and hospital environment. There’s just so little room for error.
The English and Italian soundtracks are both presented in uncompressed 1.0 LPCM audio. As per usual for Italian productions, Killer Nun was shot without synced set sound, so all language versions were dubbed in post. The choice is largely a taste issue this time, because the two tracks are so similar. In this case, much of the lead cast was speaking English on set, but almost none of the supporting cast is speaking Italian and the dubbing is never very convincing (Ekberg, Dallesandro, Valli, and Lou Castel aren’t dubbing themselves, either). Soundwise, the English dub is more evenly mixed, which means some of the dialogue is muffled. On the other hand, the more dynamic Italian dub peaks more often and dialogue has a tendency to overpower everything else. Alessandro Alessandroni’s melodramatic score and the accompanying pop music is a major highlight and mostly matches across the tracks. It’s quite rich for a single channel treatment, especially the piano & chorus opening title track and the driving mandolin (or some other type of picked string instrument) cue that plays during Gertrude’s brain surgery nightmare.
Commentary with Italian genre film connoisseurs Adrian J. Smith and David Flint (on the English version) – The Italian genre connoisseurs, Smith (horrorpedia.com) and Flint (editor of Sheer Filth!: Bizarre Cinema, Weird Literature, Strange Music, Extreme Art; FAB Press, 2014) get right down to business chatting about the supposed true story that the film is based on, its connections to other nunsploitation movies, the larger careers of the cast & crew, and more.
Beyond Convent Walls (29:19, HD) – Diabolique Magazine editor/writer and author of All The Colours Of Sergio Martino (Arrow Books, 2018), Kat Ellinger, contextualizes Killer Nun in the larger nunsploitation and, to a lesser degree, giallo canons, comparing and contrasting it to literary and film influences (I, for one, hadn’t realized there were quite so many exploitation movies inspired by Pier Paolo Pasolini’s The Decameron, 1971). This extremely informative and thorough video essay includes (often HD) clips from related movies.
Our Mother of Hell (51:51, HD) – In this expansive interview, director Giulio Berruti discusses his early film and television career, being brought on to Killer Nun after its title and concept had been decided, writing the script, production woes, casting, editing (Berruti directed the brain surgery nightmare himself), censorship, and the film’s (in his opinion) surprise cult legacy.
Cut and Noise (20:31, HD) – Editor Mario Giacco talks about breaking into the film industry, some of the other films he worked on (as lead/assistant editor or sound editor/foley artist), and his various collaborations with Berruti (who worked more regularly in editing than directing).
Starry Eyes (23:47, HD) – Actress Ileana Fraia, who appears as disturbed hospital patient named Florence, wraps things up with a look back at her education, work in film, television, dubbing, modeling & theater, being pampered by Berruti in the days after shooting her difficult sex scene, and experiences with the rest of the cast.
Italian and international trailers
The images on this page are taken from the Arrow BD and Blue Underground DVD and sized for the page, but due to .jpg compression, they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer. Full-sized .jpg versions can (currently) only be accessed by right-clicking/ctrl-clicking the images and opening them in a new window/tab.