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The Killer Nun

Italy | 1978
Directed by: Giulio Berruti
Written by: Giulio Berruti & Alberto Tarallo
Anita Ekberg
Paola Morra
Alida Valli
Joe Dallesandro
Color / 87 Minutes / Not Rated

The Killer Nun poster


(Click to enlarge images)
The sister returns to to work.
Sister Gertrude on a manhunt.
A slave to the needle.
An unfortunate victim.
Poke and prod.
Strung out.
Keep quiet!
The Killer Nun

  By KamuiX

When you decide to name a film The Killer Nun, you better be prepared to deliver the goods; it’s a title that conjures up all sorts of wild images in ones head. This is especially so considering how over-the-top other Nunsploitation films like School of the Holy Beast, Alucarda, and Images in a Convent can get. It’s too bad then that most of the crazy stuff the title of the film will call forth in your mind would make a much better film than what The Killer Nun actually turns out to be.

Anita Ekberg plays Sister Gertrude, a morphine-addicted, sex-starved, bi-polar nun that works in a geriatric hospital. She’s recently returned to work after undergoing surgery for a brain tumor. While at one time she was the top nun at the hospital, things haven’t been the same since her return. She’s been experiencing wild mood swings, blackouts, and is addicted to the morphine originally prescribed to her after the surgery. She’s adamant in conveying to the doctors that she’s still sick, but they shrug it off as being nothing more than trepidation at her life returning to normal, and they continue to allow her to work, assigning her to her original position of working with the patients.

The problems begin to mount as Sister Gertrude begins integrating herself with the hospitals population again. She smashes an old woman’s dentures, yells at the patients for the smallest of infractions, and nearly kills one patient by unhooking her IV. The doctors believe the problem could be the morphine, so they stop giving her the prescriptions for it. To remedy this, she stoops to stealing jewelry and other items from the patients and pawning them, as well as going out and seducing men to satisfy her sexual hunger.

With her morphine addiction growing worse, the blackouts begin coming more regularly, and along with them, patients begin turning up dead. The murders weigh heavy on her mind, as she doesn’t remember them whatsoever, and honestly doesn’t believe she could do such things, whether in her right mind or not. It’s then that her roommate, Sister Mathieu, tells her that she’s indeed seen her doing these things, but she’ll never report it as she’s in love with her. Now knowing she’s been picking off the patients, Sister Gertrude slips even further into her psychosis…but sometimes, things aren’t exactly what they seem.

The biggest sin committed by The Killer Nun is that it’s just painfully dull. For a film about a sexed-up, drug-addicted, and possibly homicidal nun, it’s perplexingly restrained. The murder scenes lack gore and are rather quickly dealt with (outside of a pretty cool murder that takes place outside in a thunder storm), and they feature little in the way of violence. While there are a few instances of bare breasts, the sole sex scene in the film is a fully-clothed affair, and isn’t sleazy in the least. Director Giulio Berruti was a director of documentaries for most of his career, and his style here certainly reflects that. The film has little panache, and is mostly filmed in a stationary, observing manner that doesn’t help to spice things up very much. Likewise, a lot of the soundtrack sounds utterly out of place, and seems more fitting for an Italian romance-drama than a crazy nun flick.

One interesting aspect of the film is that it’s actually a hybrid Giallo. All of the murder scenes are seen through the eyes of the killer, and you never see the perpetrator in the act. The problem is that you’d be hard pressed to realize the film is going for a Giallo angle until very late in the runtime. Most of the murder scenes are accompanied by Sister Gertrude’s drug-induced hallucinations, so the way the killings are shot seems to just be playing into the fragmented reality of the woman. These trippy sequences are one of the films few highlights, as they’re suitably unnerving, and convey Gertrude’s state of mind wonderfully.

Getting back to the Giallo elements of the film, while it was noble of Berruti to attempt something different, it just doesn’t work in the grand scheme of things. The film lacks any sort of suspense, so the scenes are pretty much wasted, especially since the film deviates from convention. There is no detective here, there’s no main character that you have to worry about getting murdered; we’re led to believe that we know who the killer is all along and she’s the main character. There is never an instance where we’re ever given the notion that we should be feeling bad for her. When all is finally revealed, it completely falls flat.

Anita Ekberg does a fine job as the unstable Sister Gertrude, conveying a nice range of emotions, but I can’t help but feel bad that after being in La Dolce Vita, one of the finest films of all time, she’s been reduced to doing drivel such as this. The rest of the cast isn’t really worth noting, although with genre films like this that feature an international cast and a lot of dubbing, it’s hard to fault anyone, and the drab script doesn’t help matters either.

While it’s admirable that Giulio Berruti didn’t want his film to be pigeon-holed with other Nunsploitation fare, it’s the lack of going for the jugular that ultimately kills the film; it lacks all of the excess that makes Nunsploitation films so fun, and its notorious reputation is ill received. More of a drama than anything else, The Killer Nun fails to deliver on all of the craziness the title indicates, and for that it has a lot of explaining to do the next time it visits the Confessional.

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