Satánico Pandemonium Blu-ray Review
Blu-ray Release: May 26, 2020
Audio: Spanish 1.0 Mono DTS-HD Master Audio
Run Time: 90 minutes
Director: Gilberto Martínez Solares
Sister Maria (Cecilia Pezet) is known in the convent for her good works and charity, but, in the secret depths of her sexual fantasies, she is tormented by visions of another world - a world where her forbidden passions are allowed to run free. In this world, Satan is her master. As her acts of violence and blasphemy mount, Maria realizes that she has been chosen by the Devil to destroy the convent and lead her sister nuns into hell! (From Mondo Macabro’s official synopsis)
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 activities, but it wasn’t until Ken Russell’s The Devils (1971, based on Aldous Huxley’s The Devils of Loudun [non-fiction, 1952] and John Whiting’s stage play The Devils [premiere 1961]) shocked censors and titillated international audiences that the concept of nunsploitation took off. Given its subject matter, one might assume that nunsploitation would be the most salacious of the exploitation subgenres, aside from the ever-grotesque Nazisploitation, but, on average, there might actually be more artistically laudable entries than gutter trash quickies. I assume this is because the genre has its basis in two genuinely great and celebrated motion pictures – Ken Russell’s aforementioned The Devils and, less obviously, Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger’s Black Narcissus (1947, based on Rumer Godden’s 1939 novel). These films gave the first couple decades of nunsploitation output something aesthetically impressive to aspire to. While they were obviously created to shock and incense exploitation-thirsty audiences, they tended to be elegant in their obscenity. At least as long as they weren’t taking their cues from Nazisploitation movies and borrowing the Women in Prison (WIP) model, and trading sado-masochistic prison guards for sado-masochistic Padres or, in this case, the Devil himself.
Gilberto Martínez Solares’ Satánico Pandemonium (aka: La Sexorcista, shot in 1973 and released in 1975) neatly represents this combination of smut and art, taking considerable cues from the colorful psychosexual melodrama of Black Narcissus. In his ode to the nunsploitation genre, Anticristo: The Bible of Nasty Nun Sinema & Culture (FAB Press, 2000), author Steve Fentone also compares it to an even older source – Matthew Gregory Lewis’ 1796 gothic novel The Monk, which has inspired a number of films, plays, novels, and comic books. Certainly, Solares and co-writers Jorge Barragán (also producer) and Adolfo Martínez Solares (the director’s son). In fact, compared to other films within the genre, the real joy of Satánico Pandemonium is found in the uneasy balance it strikes between mainstream drama and grindhouse tomfoolery. Had the title and poster art not promised an exploitation bonanza, audiences would be forgiven for thinking they were seeing a sobering portrait of one woman’s loss of faith and conviction in the face of overwhelming sexual urges. Even as things begin turning explicit, it still feels like a version of Black Narcissus, just one made without the pretense of leaving the carnal longings to our imaginations. The focus on the moral downfall of a single sinful sister, rather than the entire superfluity of a convent, as seen in the films that directly ripped off The Devils. Well, that and the literal Devil appears to be tempting the troubled nun, rather than natural desires.
If there’s any problem, it’s that the Satánico Pandemonium boils down to such deceptively simple terms that it ends up feeling undernourished. What helps in this regard is that lead actress Cecilia Pezet (who had very few leading roles before or after this movie) nearly perfects the precious tension between sex-crazed madwoman and genuinely vulnerability. She is, of course, acting for the back row, as they say, but the histrionics are more than called for, especially when the rest of the cast remains comparatively stoic. There’s also more going on here than just Catholic guilt and provocativeness. I assume that there are socio-political messages flying over my head, considering that I have never lived in a convent or studied Mexican Catholicism. My understanding of period and contemporary ‘70s Mexican politics is also limited, though the mistreatment of the two black sisters (one of whom says she’s the child of slaves) and Maria’s sexual assault of a local boy seem obvious enough.
Satánico Pandemonium was released a little before as the essential Mexican nunsploitation classic, Juan López Moctezuma’s Alucarda (Spanish: Alucarda, la hija de las tinieblas, 1977). It’s easy to confuse the two films, given their subject matter, release dates, and country of origin, but they’re different enough to pair better as companion pieces than competition. Alucarda is a less literal exploration of cloistered psychosis, engaging in bouts of graphic violence and surrealism (Mondo Macabro released that film on DVD and I’m hopeful that they plan on releasing it on Blu-ray in the near future to go along with this disc), but Satánico Pandemonium holds its own in terms of dream logic. Enough metaphysical insanity occurs to imply that perhaps it's not the literal Devil turning Sister Maria to sin, but a good old-fashioned existential crisis.
Solares was a very busy filmmaker and took director credits on 162 movies over a period of 61 years (from 1939 to 2000...though he actually died in 1997). That’s an almost unprecedented spree. The only person I know to have beaten that record is the ubiquitous Jess Franco, who made 207 movies over a period of 56 years (1957 to 2013). Funnily enough, Solares may have been inspired by Franco’s 1972 nunsploitation debut, The Demons (French: Les Demons), though the similarities between the two movies are shared by about a dozen other films.
The only DVD release of Satánico Pandemonium (in any region) came from Mondo Macabro, who has returned to the well for the film’s first and only Blu-ray release. Apparently, my screener copy’s back cover specs are slightly off. They claim that Mondo Macabro’s transfer is derived from a new 4K scan of the original film negative, but this disc actually contains two different transfers. The selection screen reads as follows:
We were delivered two scans for the film on this disc. The first, taken from pre-print materials, turned out to have a slight optical blemish on some reels. We asked the licensor to correct this and they eventually supplied us with a scan taken from a positive print, according to them the only 35mm source that did not have this issue. The flaw is minor and not present on every reel. However, we felt it best to give the viewer a choice on which version they prefer. Each has its merits and demerits.
Furthermore, I have read that the “flawed” scan was indeed done in 4K and the print scan was done in 2K. I’ve included a couple of comparison sliders in this review, though most of the images on this page are taken from the 4K negative scan, which I found superior, despite said flaw. The details are sharper, the film grain is finer, and the naturalistic colors pop beautifully. Disadvantages include slightly more cross coloration effects – blues bleed into blacks and the shading in some neutral hues appears a smidge fuzzy – and, of course, the optical flaw, which (assuming I’m looking at the right thing) appears as a light circle that moves from the middle to the center left of the screen. It looks like a lens flare and I only caught my eye a few times. Other artifacts are minimal, including a few small blobs, white flecks, and a hint of vertical tracking print damage. Of course, the print transfer has the advantage of a more consistent look, despite its smudgier details and grain levels. There are fewer artifacts and tones tend to appear the same throughout the entire movie (skin tones are quite orange on the print version, however).
Satánico Pandemonium is presented in its original Spanish language mono and uncompressed, 1.0 DTS-HD Master Audio. Despite the dual video scans, It seems that Mondo Macabro has used the same track for each. I’m not familiar with the ways that Mexican films were filmed at the time, but the occasionally lapsed lip sync and thin environmental din lead me to assume that this one was largely dubbed. I could very easily be wrong. The base quality of the track is strong and loud, though there are notable inconsistencies from reel to reel. The most notable issues are the on again, off again hiss of some aspirated consonants and similar high volume distortions and a handful of awkward cuts in volume between shots. Gustavo César Carrión’s (who is technically credited as musical director, rather than composer) original score does an impressive or at least fun job mixing traditional church music (organ, women’s chorus), bossa nova beats, mournful horror strings, and oddball keyboard sounds, like feedback and echoey, heavily distorted notes. This occasionally sci-fi-like music does a fun job preparing the audience for the less wholesome content to come.
Commentary with Kat Ellinger and Samm Deighan – This is a typically strong track from the Daughters of Darkness podcast co-hosts and Diabolik Magazine editors. Their discussion hinges largely on the history of nunsploitation cinema, its various subsets, and how Satánico Pandemonium fits in the pantheon. Great points are made about the film’s lack of moral message and concrete political context (it’s good to know that the experts are just as flummoxed as I am in this regard!), and Ellinger in particular speaks at length about the careers of some cast & crew members.
Interview with Co-writer Adolfo Martinez Solares (15:07, 720p HD) – Solares the younger talks (in English) about his father’s massive body of work, breaking down what he considers Gilberto’s most important movies (including his popular Santo pictures), and recalling family stories, before digging into Satánico Pandemonium. He names Gregory Lewis’ The Monk as the base inspiration, at least before the screenplay was cut short for time, and recalls the casting processes.
Interview with Redemption Films founder Nigel Wingrove (11:13, 720p HD) – This is more of a catchall look back at the nunsploitation Wingrove helped give a second life on video, including clips from the films themselves and those silly intros that Redemption shot for their releases.
The images on this page are taken from the BD and sized for the page. Larger versions can be seen by clicking the images. Note that there will be some JPG compression.