Sister Gertrude hasn’t been feeling well lately. An operation to remove a brain tumor has left her with horrible headaches. With the doctor saying it’s all in her head (perhaps literally) and the Mother Superior telling her that nuns are supposed to suffer, can you blame a girl for sneaking some doses of morphine? Can you blame her for being a bit cranky and doing a poor job of helping the patients? Can you blame her for stealing a dead woman’s ring, running off to town to have sex with a stranger, and picking up some street drugs (hmmmm)? Can you blame her for humiliating her lesbian roommate and making her put on stockings (umm, that’s just odd)? Can you blame her for beating a man to death and shoving pins through an old woman’s eye? Wait. Yes. I think that one might be going a bit too far.
Hey, she said she was sick. They should have listened.
Adequately filmed for an Italian B-movie, Killer Nun (sometimes called The Killer Nun) was banned by the Catholic Church and multiple countries (including Britain) for its sacrilegious themes, which shows hype means more than reality. It was newspaper ads claiming the story was from secret Vatican files that got everyone hot and bothered. The idea did come from a true story—of a nun who killed patients in order to steal their gold, and was arrested when the items were found in her room—but there was no Church cover-up, nor greater meaning beyond one disturbed woman. The film itself has nothing nice to say about religion, but is hardly world shaking, and even keeps its blasphemy to a minimum.
And that’s the problem with Killer Nun; it is far too restrained. Ekberg, the one-time-sex-symbol best known for wading into a fountain in La Dolce Vita, is treated as if her age precludes sensuality or violence. Her flesh is kept demurely (sometimes bizarrely) covered while the younger Morra prances around next to her, naked as if it’s the most natural thing in the world. Half of the film is constructed as a mainstream examination of drug abuse in a middle-aged woman. Do you know what isn’t interesting? A mainstream examination of a drug abuse in a middle-aged woman. It is slow and unenlightening, telling us what we already know (Mr. Mackey: “Drug’s are b-bad.”). The crawling pace becomes literal when Sister Gertrude takes a patient’s crutches away, and we watch him drag himself up a flight of stair, and we see every inch.
The tedium is interrupted by exploitation elements, including multiple murders, sex scenes, and copious nudity from the delectable Ms Morra. Most of this is entertaining, but occasionally it continues the misuse of Ekberg. Demonstrating her split personality, Sister Gertrude heads to town for some drugs, and while there, drops the habit and picks up a stranger for anonymous sex. Great, except that this is sex without an inch of displayed skin, and we’ve seen nothing to indicate Gertrude has lost the conviction of her vows, nor that she’s been in need of a good screw. The murders work better, and a grim pin and scalpel torture scene may make you feel queasy, but it won’t bore you. The best moments belong to Morra, who’s like a mad, sex-starved pixie. Her Sister Mathieu is a lesbian temptress and the only sympathetic character in the film. Gertrude is a nasty addict, the old doctor is gruff and arrogant, the new doc is drab, self-righteous, and a hypocrite, Mother Superior is cruel and another hypocrite, and the hospital director cares only about his family’s past indiscretions and the hospital’s “good” name, not the patients. These are not nice people. But Mathieu, seems loving, and Morra makes her vulnerable and sensual.
A killer nun, lesbianism, and Gertrude’s inability to separate drugs from God won’t be making the Catholic church’s recruiting brochures (although they should think about the lesbian thing), but they aren’t powerful indictments of the system either. A more significant condemnation is the character of the Mother Superior and her implied support from the religious hierarchy. When it looks like the Church could be in for some bad press, she has the suspect nun confined within a convent where the law will never find her, and has the multiple murders classified as accidents. Hmmmm. The Catholic church covering up the misdeeds of its representatives and moving them about to escape prosecution—now where have I heard that before?
Much of Killer Nun was film in a convent. Director Giulio Berruti gave priests and nuns a fake script to get their permission. Whenever a member of the clergy showed up to watch filming, the production would mysteriously have a great deal of extra light adjustments to make, which would take as long as it took for them to became bored and wandered off.