Nunsploitation is definitely not a strong suit of mine; going through a list to see which ones I’ve viewed has left me feeling ashamed and repentant. So after three Hail Mary’s and four Our Father’s I knelt down and witnessed The Other Hell (1981), Italian grimemaster Bruno Mattei’s take on fervid religiosity, rabid dogs, satanic offspring, and enough Catholic iconography to set a priest on fire. Which is a thing that also happens.
Released in Italy in late January and rolled out around the world throughout the year (North America would have to wait until ’85), The Other Hell is pretty much what I’ve grown to love about Italian horror of the ‘70s and ‘80s – outlandish characters, loopy plotting and jaw dropping moments – but is so far and above what I’ve seen of Mattei’s other work that it gives me a nosebleed.
So, let’s get thee to a nunnery, shall we? We open with a blessed sister heading down to the basement of the convent, where she comes across another sister embalming another sister. (Everything is done in house, apparently.) With one on the slab already, the embalmer decides to add another penguin to the pile and snuffs her fellow sister. When neither shows up for mass, a quick search in the cellar finds the embalmer dead as well, and the church brings in Father Valerio (Carlo De Mejo – City of the Living Dead) to investigate.
The only person standing in his way is Mother Vincenza (Franca Stoppi – Beyond the Darkness), who’s very protective of her flock (gaggle? Posse?) and harbors a deep, dark secret: she has a connection to the killer, and is the only one who can put an end to the slashin’ of the Christ (forgive me fadda).
The Other Hell is many things: blasphemous (depending on your beliefs); over the top, definitely; weird, without a doubt. What it isn’t, unlike other Mattei joints, is boring; I’ve made my way through Hell of the Living Dead (’80) and Rats: Night of Terror (’84) and I find them to be ugly and anemic, devoid of energy and spirit. Perhaps the subject matter, away from jungle drenched zombies or post-apocalyptica, scratched a particular itch within; as a filmmaker, there’s no way the script by Claudio Fragasso (yes, Troll 2) could not have your full attention.
How do you solve a problem like malaise? Well, you start with an embalming station that looks like a leftover Hammer lab, add in female genital mutilation (they’re the devil’s tools, don’t ya know), the previously mentioned padre pyre, baby boiling, an attic filled with dolls hanging on wire from the ceiling, and a big old dose of telekinesis for those who feel, you know, something is missing.
But I’m not sure anything is missing from The Other Hell, unless you’re looking for a deep message or social consciousness. Like much of Italian horror, intention takes a back seat to sensation; and on the surface, one could make a case for the Church’s hypocrisy of burying their shameful past. Except here that past involves a tryst with the Devil resulting in a Carrie clone. We’re not exactly dealing in the factual fear and hysteria of Ken Russell’s The Devils (1971), which ultimately has loftier goals in mind.
That doesn’t make it better though, just different; I’ll definitely need to dig deeper into Nunsploitation to see how these issues are dealt with, if at all. I suspect the results to be as varied as the two extremes, and hopefully as entertaining. The Other Hell certainly has moments I’ve never experienced in any horror film, regardless of the sub-genre; Italian horror has never excelled at restraint, and it’s a lack of filmic filter that gives this and others of its ilk their taboo nature. No matter whichever year of whatever lord it is, a lot of folks are precious when it comes to religion. I see it as just another canvas for glorious crimson images.
As far as the actors go, the most well-known come off the best; De Mejo is a likeable presence, but Stoppi does her normal domination of the screen, her bug-eyed Mother Vincenza hueing much closer to Norma Desmond than Mother Theresa in disposition. In regards to the others, putting the majority of the cast in the exact same costume does not lend distinction, nor does a paucity of dialogue that isn’t fed to the two main leads, who Mattei wisely chooses to focus on when he isn’t skewering, gutting, and immolating the rest of the cast. The man is busy here is what I’m saying, and manages to craft atmospheric scenes with a care and consideration I wasn’t aware he was capable of, but pleased to witness.
Mattei has long had the reputation as a journeyman director, churning out countless erotic thrillers, horror, and action under so many guises you’d think he was in the Witness Protection Program. Here he gets to be Stefan Oblowsky (not to be confused with the actor who played Ned Ryerson), but he’s helmed numerous films as Vincent Dawn, Gilbert Roussel, Jordan B. Matthews, Jimmy Matheus, Bob Hunter, *inhales* Michael Cardoso, David Graham, Pierre Le Blanc (my fave), Herik Montgomery, Frank Klox (okay, my new fave), William Snyder, and David Hunt. The Other Hell gives off such a competent, slick, and energetic vibe that Mattei should have been proud to use his own name - although I have a suspicion that pride was never high on his list of concerns as a filmmaker. Consider this film penance served.
The Other Hell is available on Blu-ray from Severin Films.Next: Drive-In Dust Offs: THE TOMB OF LIGEIA (1964)