Where exploitation films occupy the nether regions of cinema’s margins, taking advantage of tawdry trends to create cheap, luridly saleable sensationalism, nunsploitation is a niche within that niche, realising, or at least imagining, the behaviours of Christ’s brides within their closed communities.
The subgenre plays on viewers’ suspicions that holy exclusivity may be a cloak for altogether worldlier drives, while appealing to a voyeuristic sense of curiosity, an iconoclastic rebelliousness, and of course a fetish for women in – and then out of – uniform.
At the same time, its cloistered setting – a hermetically sealed, sometimes Sadean world with its own coded conduct and oppressive rules – readily serves as an allegorical microcosm for the broader pretensions and power structures of society at large.
Nunsploitation has a long if barely venerable history that began in the early 1960s, peaked in the 1970s, but has survived sporadically into the present day. It’s surprising that provocative enfant terrible Paul Verhoeven has taken so long to essay this sometimes historical, sometimes hysterical subgenre. But with his latest feature, Benedetta, the Dutch director fully embraces nunsploitation’s Sapphic sex, flagellation and torture as he tells the story of real-life 17th-century Italian nun Benedetta Carlini (played by Virginie Efira).
He presents Benedetta’s mystic acts ambiguously as either divine miracles or grandstanding fraud, demanding that the viewer take the ultimate leap of faith. Naturally, Verhoeven paves his path to heaven with much earthly enticement and corporeal desire, defying us to sort virtue from vice, piety from politics, and holiness from horniness.
Here are 10 nunsploitation films that led the way.
The Devils (1971)
Director: Ken Russell
Like Jerzy Kawalerowicz’s artful proto-nunsploitationer Mother Joan of the Angels (1961), Ken Russell’s film is based on the 17th-century Loudun possessions, although it deals with an earlier part of the story. The Ursuline abbess Jean des Anges (Vanessa Redgrave) becomes erotically obsessed with proud, popular priest Urbain Grandier (Oliver Reed). Unable to obtain the object of her affection, in a fit of jealousy she accuses him (truly) of fornication and (falsely) of witchcraft, leading to torturous inquisitions, an outbreak of mass psychogenic illness among the nuns, and the cruel destruction of a flawed but wronged man.
With its blasphemous imagery (violently combining the sacred and the sexual) and its unflinching interrogation of religious hypocrisy, Russell’s historical tragedy remains one of the most controversial – and censored – films ever made, with the notorious ‘rape of Christ’ sequence only rediscovered (by critic Mark Kermode) and restored to the film in 2002, and still only rarely seen.
School of the Holy Beast (1974)
Director: Norifumi Suzuki
Christianity is a minority religion in Japan, yet the country has produced a surprising number of nunsploitation films whose cloistered furnishings are used to allegorise the nation’s insularity, repressiveness and patriarchy. Norifumi Suzuki’s feature opens with liberated 1970s woman Maya (Yumi Takigawa) entering the Saint Clore Abbey, on a Shock Corridor-like undercover mission to investigate past secrets and enact her revenge. Here, Maya embodies a modern Japan confronting the sins of the Father and the sufferings of the previous wartime generation.
Tonally uneven and disorienting, this mixes ‘pinky’ sex comedy with graver themes of incest, trauma and nuclear atrocity. Reinvesting the subgenre’s usual sadomasochism and sacrilege with immaculate aesthetic stylisations, it engages seriously with the fragility of faith, as personified by the complex figure of Father Kakinuma (Fumio Watanabe) – all at once hypocrite, victim, rapist and earnest seeker of divine truth in a fallen world. There is nothing like it.
Director: Juan López Moctezuma
“One is identical to the other. Just like an image in a mirror. Like you and me.” Alucarda is describing a pair of beetles to fellow 15-year-old Justine (Susana Kamini) in a feature which is itself a genre hybrid full of mirrorings, duplications and confrontations. Made in Mexico but shot in English, Juan López Moctezuma’s rites-of-passage possession horror has Tina Romero playing both Alucarda and her mother, while Claudio Brook plays both doctor hero and Gypsy villain.
If innocent, encloistered orphan Justine evokes her Sadean namesake, Alucarda’s anagrammatic name suggests vampirism (Moctezuma took inspiration from Sheridan le Fanu’s Carmilla). Yet as these two girls, both haunted by the loss of their parents, form a bloody adolescent bond whose taboo nature threatens to bring the whole nunnery down, Alucarda offers up parallel interpretative matrices – medical, psychological, religious – in an attempt to rationalise the irrational, while satanically inverting the iconography of Catholicism.
Love Letters of a Portuguese Nun (1977)
Director: Jesús Franco
Falling neatly into Jess Franco’s prolific run of softcore sado-erotica, this sleazy romp takes its title (if little else) from Gabriel-Joseph de la Vergne’s 1669 pseudo-epistolary romance. Caught innocently cavorting with her boyfriend, 15-year-old virgin Maria (Susan Hemingway) enters the Serra D’aires abbey – a convent in fact committed to satanic worship, where she is raped, gaslit, tortured and framed by the wicked Mother Alma (Ana Zanatti) and Father Vicente (William Beger). Only a letter written to God may prove her mysterious salvation.
“It is difficult for us to know for certain whether or not Satan walks among us and under which guise he may appear,” observes the Grand Inquisitor (José Viana). Sure enough, Franco’s anticlerical nunsploitationer revels in the very abuse and degradation that it also condemns, while showing that the Devil does not so much invade the Church as already sit on its throne of cruel hypocrisy.
Behind Convent Walls (1978)
Director: Walerian Borowczyk
Walerian Borowczyk is a fetishistic director of objects, and so this feature, drawn from Stendhal’s Promenades dans Rome (1883), opens with a slow tilt up and down a painting of a near naked Jesus. A male worker brings a joint of meat to the convent, donning chastity glasses to avoid temptation while he carves the beef for the nuns. So far the convent appears a picture of decorum, but that meat and Christ’s bared flesh suggest a carnality within that will come to the fore as soon as the handyman leaves: lesbian canoodling in the confessional, male visitors in the night, a sister who performs nude yoga before an icon, another who fashions a sacrilegious dildo, and others who imbibe opium.
The hated Mother Superior (Gabriella Giacobbe) struggles to impose order – but the question is raised whether all this debauchery, far from being sin, might represent a bubble of liberty in a repressive world.
Killer Nun (1979)
Director: Giulio Berruti
Since having a brain tumour excised, middle-aged, domineering Sister Gertrude (Anita Ekberg) seems increasingly to belong to the psychiatric ward where she works as a doctor’s assistant. Addicted to morphine, prone to violent outbursts and sent into trauma-induced dazes during surgery, Gertrude’s unstable behaviour makes her a potential danger to her patients – but is she responsible for a series of murders that have been covered up as accidents?
Where most nunsploitation films were set in a distant past – and in a convent – Giulio Berruti’s feature takes place largely in a hospital, and exploits for its fiction a recent, real-life case ripped from the headlines. Despite featuring nuns galore (including a Mother Superior played by Alida Valli!), wild confessions, lesbianism and other markers of the subgenre, this plays out equally as a giallo, its plot propelled as much by confounded identity and whodunnit mystery as by Catholic hang-ups.
Dark Habits (1983)
Director: Pedro Almodóvar
Much as nunsploitation emerged in part as a dark rejoinder to films like The Nun’s Story (1959) or The Sound of Music (1965), Pedro Almodóvar’s third feature was a response to sentimental Franco-era Catholic films like La hermana San Sulpicio (1952) or The Miracle of Marcelino (1955). It might essentially be a convent-set musical melodrama with a softer edge than other films on this list, but certainly previous Spanish films about nuns did not include a lesbian Mother Superior (Julieta Serrano) on heroin, a self-mortifying ex-murderess nun (Marisa Paredes) who takes acid for her visions, another (Chus Lampreave) who pseudonymously writes sensational romantic novels, a third (Carmen Maura) who keeps a pet tiger on the premises, and a fourth (Lina Canalejas) who designs seasonal fashion lines for her Sisters.
As fugitive singer Yolanda (Cristina Sánchez Pascual) enters this world, she witnesses an ancient church seeking its place in a modern Spain.
Nude Nuns with Big Guns (2010)
Director: Joseph Guzman
In the wake of Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez’s nostalgically down-and-dirty double feature Grindhouse (2007), for a while the ossified corpus of exploitation cinema became a voguish repertoire for knowing parody and pastiche – and inevitably nunsploitation would soon get a look in. Rodriguez and Ethan Maniquis’ Machete (2010), expanded from a faux trailer shown in Grindhouse, features a gun-toting character dressed in a nun’s habit (referencing Abel Ferrara’s 1981 film Ms. 45). Meanwhile, Joseph Guzman’s film promises, right from the lurid ambiguity of its title (“Big guns as in big tits?” as one character asks), low pleasures straight from the cloister.
Here lesbian nun Sister Sarah (Asun Ortega) engages in a ‘holy war’ against a corrupted clergy and vicious bike gangs who together drugged and prostituted her. The ensuing parade of breast and penis, rape and murder, is somehow rendered even more tawdry by all the nodding, winking postmodern irony.
St Agatha (2018)
Director: Darren Lynn Bousman
With the release of Aislinn Clarke’s The Devil’s Doorway, Paul Hyett’s Heretiks, Corin Hardy’s The Nun and Gonzalo Calzada’s Luciferina, 2018 was the year when nuns returned to horror. Unlike these films, Darren Lynn Bousman’s 1957-set feature lacks any supernatural element, but makes up for this with a cloistered gothic world of masked figures and buried secrets.
“Get me out!” screams Mary (Sabrina Kern), first seen confined inside a coffin. Flashbacks show her serially trapped: in the closed patriarchy of her abusive father’s home, in guilt over her brother’s death, and in an unwanted pregnancy out of wedlock. When this ‘fallen woman’ seeks refuge in the Sisters of Divinity convent, she becomes trapped once more by a venal Mother Superior (Carolyn Hennesy), and must emancipate herself from societal repression and institutional exploitation. Mary emerges from her sufferings as a superior mother herself, in the vanguard of the coming women’s liberation movement.
Director: Mickey Reece
Premiering in the same year as Verhoeven’s Benedetta, Mickey Reece’s lower-profile, lower-budget indie is a film of two halves, allowing a single, if fragmented, nun’s story to unfold in an eccentric, elliptical manner. In its shrill opening section, first a discredited, peacocking priest (Ben Hall) and then a showboating celebrity exorcist (Chris Browning) attempt to get the devil out of the possessed nun Agnes (Hayley McFarland), only to see their patriarchal authority violently undermined by the young woman’s extreme rebellion. The second part abandons both nunsploitation tropes and most of the characters, instead centring on Agnes’s melancholic friend and fellow nun Mary (Molly Quinn), now back outside the convent to seek meaning and God in a profane, confusing ‘real world’.
Miraculously, Reece’s film pulls from its own generic, gonzo beginnings a profound, ongoing discourse on faith, loss and despair, finding plenty of thematic meat to nourish what one character terms our ‘spiritual hunger’.
Benedetta is in UK and Irish cinemas from 15 April.
Agnes is available now on digital download, and on DVD from 18 April.
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