Nunsploitation is a sub-genre that thrived in the 1970s, drawing on cultural shifts in religion and sexuality for its dramatic conflict. The archetypal examples are often set in the middle-ages, sometimes incorporating the Inquisition for added exploitation flare. I must admit only a passing familiarity with Nunsploitation, though I have seen The Devils, an infamous, x-rated, early art-house take on the genre with an impressive pedigree (i.e. directed by Ken Russel based on an Aldous Huxley book and starring Vanessa Redgrave and Oliver Reed). It’s hard to find, even these days, but worth seeking out.
To be honest, the three movies I watched recently are only loosely affiliated with Nunspoitation, if at all. Two are actually listed on the Wikipedia page, but they both feature modern-day settings and have some cross-genre elements. None are as successful as The Devils, but there are some interesting things going on in a couple of these. Let’s get to it!
The Six Weeks of Halloween: Week 5 – Nunsploitation
The Nun – A priest and novitiate are sent to investigate a suicide committed at a cloistered abbey in Romania. Naturally, they discover spooky secrets and eventually confront the demonic nun from The Conjuring 2.
I feel like a lot of critics value a film’s ambition more than they should. I tend to respect and find value in such films, but unless they can actually fulfill that ambition, I generally come away disappointed. On the other hand, there are some films that don’t have a lot of ambition, but execute perfectly on their premise, and I tend to prefer that approach to an interesting failure. My typical example of this phenomenon is pitting The Last Broadcast against The Blair Witch Project. Both feature found-footage of kids getting lost in the woods, but the former is a hugely ambitious critique of the media landscape that doesn’t quite stick the landing while the latter is a more straightforward genre tale. I like Last Broadcast and find the ideas it presents fascinating, but I love Blair Witch, even if it’s not as ambitous.
All of which is to say that The Nun aspires to mediocrity, and somehow can’t even really clear that bar. What’s more frustrating is that it actually comes close before falling apart. It’s got a great cast, with Taissa Farmiga providing an interesting spark of life to an otherwise dull mess. Demián Bichir is solid and of course, the demonic nun has become marginally iconic due to Bonnie Aarons’s performance. The set design is fantastic. Alas, the writing is abysmal, relying almost exclusively on thinly veiled excuses to separate characters and expose them to poorly executed jump scares. The backstory is barebones and uninteresting, the powers of the demonic nun are vague and ever-changing, the plan to defeat her is even more opaque than that, while the cinematography veers towards that overly dark trend that has become a common flaw in recent horror (which, I will admit, has gotten worse over the past few years since this movie came out, but it’s still not great here).
It’s a shame that the Conjuring Cinematic Universe has experienced such a severe dropoff in filmmaking quality after James Wan left the franchise. The curve of diminishing returns is really quite steep. Funnily enough, this particular movie frequently reminded me of The Pope’s Exorcist, which isn’t exactly a great movie, but has a lot of similar elements that are just executed better. Honestly, I would much rather see Taissa Farmiga’s nun teamed up with Russell Crowe’s exorcist in a crossover event (which honestly feels like it could work, given the incredibly loose “based on a true story” premises of both franchises) than whatever The Nun 2 holds in store (though I do see that it’s marginally better rated than the first Nun, so I guess there is that). I don’t think anyone truly considers this to be a Nunsploitation flick, but I think there are maybe some elements here that fit. *1/2
Killer Nun – Sister Gertrude is the head nurse at a general hospital who has become addicted to morphine and slid into sex crazed madness. Her doctor and a fellow nun try to help her, but her increasingly psychotic behavior becomes harder and harder to control.
Too sleazy to be a respectable drama, but nowhere near lurid enough to be a shining example of the genre (though apparently it had enough racy content to become a Video Nasty). Indeed, it almost feels a little like a Giallo crossover in the end, but the pacing never really picks up even when twists start flying towards the conclusion of the film. As usual with this sort of Italian exploitation production, you get some stylish flourishes anchored by an excellent Alessandro Alessandroni musical score that is atypical but quite effective.
There are a couple of effective set-pieces, notably a morphine induced freakout about halfway through the film, filled with hallucinatory imagery and punctuated by that great Alessandroni score. Alas, that sort of psychedelic experience isn’t quite enough to make up for the wonky pacing, which never really finds a groove or builds properly. The conclusion has a nice twist, but I’m not sure it entirely fits.
Of the films covered in this post, this is perhaps the most fitting of the Nunsploitation label, though its “present day” setting is unusual for the sub-genre. It’s a fascinating little film, but not entirely successful. **
Agnes – Rumors of demonic possession at a religious convent prompts a church investigation by a priest and his student. Things do not go as planned, even when they call on a former priest who has become a famous TV exorcist.
Writer/Director Mickey Reece currently has 39 directorial credits on his IMDB page (it also claims 25 are feature films produced within about 10 years), which is impressive… but I’m guessing you haven’t heard of any of them because they’re mostly DIY micro-budget affairs (that are mostly unavailable on streaming). Agnes got some buzz when it premiered at Fantastic Fest a couple years ago, and it supposedly represented an increase in ambition for the indie director.
I’ve seen some folks refer to it as a horror comedy, but that doesn’t feel like the best way to capture it. It’s not so much funny as it is eccentric. For the first half of the film or so, there’s all the standard hallmarks of a possession/exorcism film, but everything is just slightly… off. This leads to some darkly comic moments (priests laughing about a student’s concerns for safety, the nuns commenting on how attractive the priests are, etc…), but I don’t think you could call it a comedy.
Furthermore, without giving anything away, there’s an abrupt shift in the narrative about halfway through the film. We move from the cliched but engaging exorcism narrative in the first half of the film to a more grounded drama in the second half. Whether or not you like this movie will greatly depend on how this shift hits you. I was, more or less, willing to go with it, but it’s certainly not a perfectly executed switcharoo, and it could leave a lot of viewers with some severe disappointment. I could kinda see what they were going for by the end, and there’s a thread involving a crisis of faith that wends its way through both segments reasonably well, but it almost seems designed to annoy people.
Hayley McFarland plays the titular Sister Agnes, and her ability to smoothly transition from innocent nun to demon-possessed monster and back again works quite well. Molly Quinn (probably most famous as Castle‘s daughter in the long running CBS procedural) plays Agnes’ best friend, and the star of the back half of the movie. Ben Hall and Jake Horowitz do fine work as the priests assigned to investigate, and Chris Browning is great as the sleazy former priest turned TV exorcist. For his part, Mickey Reece shows some stylistic flourishes and manages to give the film a 70s vibe, with effective use of camera movements and zooms, as well as the general tonal oddness and even the performances he evokes out of the aforementioned cast (particularly in the more sedate second half).
So I’ll chalk this one up as one of those interesting failures that has lots on its mind and plenty of ambition, but isn’t quite able to deliver on that potential. On the other hand, I’m not sure there’s an obvious way to “fix” this, other than making two almost completely separate movies. It does appear on the Wikipedia page as a Nunsploitation movie, but this is even more atypical of the subgenre than Killer Nun. This is one of those movies I’m really glad I caught up with, but would find hard to recommend except to more adventurous film dorks (it’s not a snobby movie, but snobs might like it). **1/2
It’s hard to believe we’ve already reached week five of the Six Weeks, though the way things timed out, it’s more like 6.5 weeks this year. Next week, we tackle some Giallo animals. In the meantime, if you’re still in the mood for some horror reviews, head on over to Film Thoughts where Zack is posting nearly daily updates (and covering far more films than I do, as per usual).