Recently orphaned fifteen-year-old Justine is brought to a convent of bizarre, filthy, death-shrouded nuns in the 1860s. Her roommate is Alucarda, a happy but disturbed girl who instantly falls in love with Justine, and takes her to the woods to show her “secrets.” While gallivanting about, they open a coffin (which probably belonged to Alucarda’s mother) and a force enters Alucarda. Soon, the two girls are swearing allegiance to Satan (in the nude, naturally), the nuns are whipping themselves in Christ’s love, and the priest is shouting for an exorcism that involves crucifixion. It’s just a regular day in the church.
Yes, it is possession time again, which normally means affirming you belief and joy in God and The Church (i.e. The Exorcist), but not this time. Maverick Mexican director Juan López Moctezuma has created a thoroughly repellent religious order. The nuns wrap themselves like mummies with what looks to be dried menstrual blood staining the front of their rags, flagellate themselves, leaving deep, long, bloody wounds on their backs, and writhe on the floor and scream at the notion of the Devil. The priest yells of doom while standing in front of an alter of multiple crucified forms, is frightened of sexuality, and thinks that stabbing young nude girls while they are bound to a cross is the best way to deal with bad behavior. There isn’t much to recommend the Church, nor God for that matter. As Alucarda says, “you worship death, I worship life.”
Lumped into the ’70s and ’80s “Nunsploitation” genre, Alucarda has a lot to say about religion, and it says it with blood, nudity, and more screaming than I’ve heard in any other film. Everyone screams. Alucarda and Justine, gypsies, nuns, monks, priests—they all scream. If screaming annoys you, this is going to be a very long movie. The nudity is courtesy of Alucarda and Justine (and the gypsies) as the two girls carry out a Satanic bonding ceremony in the buff and dance naked with the gypsies, before Justine is strapped to a wooden X and stripped so that a monk might check her flesh for The Devil’s mark (yeah, right). The blood on the other hand, is courtesy of just about everyone. I don’t think a single character gets away without shedding or being covered in a bit of the red stuff (well, maybe the carriage driver gets away clean).
The Satanism that the two girls embrace (or that possesses them) is not the normal horror film sort, but is closer to pagan vitality worship. While it is less repressed and more fulfilling than Christianity, it has its disadvantages. Alucarda’s conversion pushes her toward insanity (and considering where she started, it doesn’t have to be much of a shove) and Justine becomes very sick. The film is never clear on what is harming Justine: the pagan possession, her own guilt, or the battle between Christian and “demonic” forces within her. Alucarda blames Christianity and vows to take vengeance on The Church (which, considering all its other actions, is understandable), but she is never completely in control. In the end, both religions symbolically vanish for the good of all.
But even then, the message of the film is often muddled. Sometimes it is characters that muddy the waters. Sister Angélica is actually on the side of good and, by receiving stigmata, can influence nature to strike at the gypsies. The one man of reason and science, Dr. Oszek, converts to Christianity and becomes as bad as any of the nuns with extraordinary ease. That the same actor plays him and the lead gypsy implies a duality, but what that might mean is never investigated. Then there is the suggestion that Alucarda (whose name is Dracula in reverse with an “a” added) is Lucy Westenra’s daughter, but this homage to Dracula goes nowhere. Is Alucarda supposed to be an evil vampire? It seems unlikely.
Message aside, this is a beautiful and strange film. The colors are bright, crisp, and hyper-realistic. The set design is the movie’s most peculiar element and one of its best. The nunnery appears to have been carved out of solid rock, and the figures behind the altar look like they grew there. While shot in Mexico, the actors spoke English. But much of the dialog was still added in post production, with the same effect as if the movie had been dubbed, only the lips match the words. The pace keeps things exciting, but is also too fast in developing the pivotal relationship between Alucarda and Justine. A few extra minutes showing them grow together over time would have helped immensely.
While sometimes lacking in intellectual coherence, its emotional center is clear: religion is a sad, dirty affair, and the nude human form is lovely. It takes a more moderate position on excessive blood and doctors with leeches.
It is also known as Innocents from Hell, Mark of the Devil 3, and Sisters of Satan.