Wednesday, 20 February 2008

The Other Hell (1980)

Mother Vincenza (Franca Stoppi) prepares to take a big bite of scenery.

Nunsploitation is a subgenre of film that sprang up in the 70s. Usually set in a Middle Age convent (though this one is set in the present day), they often involve demonic possession and lesbian hi-jinx. They were very popular in predominately Catholic countries, like Spain and Italy. They could be seen as a subversive criticism of the social and sexual suppression in organised religion. Or as an excuse to have a bunch of sexy nuns get freaky in a convent. Both are fine with me!

Actually, after enduring twelve years of Catholic schooling, the idea of a sexy nun is about as bizarre and otherworldly as a Bruno Mattei film that doesn't suck. Wait, did I say Bruno Mattei? Yes, glaring like a biohazard warning from the DVD cover of The Other Hell is "The Bruno Mattei Collection". With Claudio Fragasso writing to boot! It's a bit of a Johnny-come-lately to the subgenre (nunsploitation had pretty much crapped out by the time the film was released) but Mattei isn't one to let a lack of public interest (or time or resources or talent, for that matter) stand in the way of his compulsive need to stick his dick in every genre under the sun.

The film begins with a lost nun stumbling around an ossuary in the dark. She happens upon the embalming chamber, where Sister Assunta is performing some rather unorthodox burial procedures with Victorian-era equipment (test tubes, beakers etc). She cuts out the corpse's lady-bits and starts waving them about, ranting on about how the genitals are the gateway to damnation (yep, sounds like the Catholic church to me). Suddenly a paper mache devil head with light-bulb eyes appears and causes Sister Assunta to go even more nuts and frenziedly stab the other nun to death. Then, presumably, she kills herself.

Mother Vincenza (Franca Stoppi) tries to hush things up and dismiss their deaths as an accident (she fell backwards onto her knife twenty or thirty times), but the church sends in Father Inardo (Andrea Aureli) to investigate. As soon as he arrives, demonic forces get all up in his grill, causing his bible to burst into flames and a rubber bat to mercilessly hump his crucifix. After a possessed nun bleeds to death from stigmata, he is convinced that Satan is afoot.

The higher ups are unconvinced by his supernatural explanation, and decide to send in a younger, more rational priest, Father Valerio (Carlo de Mejo). He is determined to find a logical explanation for the deaths, but setbacks dog him at every turn. When he arrives he is forced to run for as life when a dog lethargically trots after him. Mother Vincenza is less than helpful and the other nuns are afraid to speak out against her. He does a lot of wandering around in darkened passages and finds little except a bunch of creepy dolls hanging from the ceiling. While Father Valerio is conducting his investigation, Father Inardo sneaks back into the convent, but he is burnt alive by Satan and his roasted head stuck in the tabernacle.

Father Valerio's lack of progress drives him to drink (I was feeling the same way about this movie) and he decides it's time to get tough. If you're hoping (like I was) that he was going to start punching out some nuns, you'll be disappointed to know that he just searches their rooms. In the room of a catatonic nun, he finds a matted clump of hair under the floor. What this is supposed to signify, I have no idea, but it causes the nun to wake up from her coma and attempt to choke him with some rosary beads.

It is about this time that his tape recorder (which shows video somehow) starts randomly dispensing some handy exposition. It seems that some time ago, Mother Vincenza had a baby girl and the Mother Superior, citing the child as the Devil's spawn, attempted to boil the baby alive. Mother Vincenza plucked it from the cooking pot, but not before it's face was horribly burned. Subsequently, the baby (which has transformed into a very unconvincing doll) uses telekinetic powers to force the Mother Superior to strangle herself to death. Mother Vincenza now keeps her daughter locked up in the attic.

There is also a nun with blank white face and a cat skulking around, and I'm not sure if this is supposed to be the same person. Like the Almighty, Mattei works in mysterious ways. The creepy gardener (Franco Garofalo, who would team up with Mattei/Fragasso again in Hell of the Living Dead) makes the mistake of feeding her cat to his dogs, and soon he is dished up for dessert.

All of this leads up to a couple of boring confrontations between Father Valerio, Mother Vincenza and her daughter, and the conclusion leaves a lot of questions unanswered. Was the daughter the spawn of Satan or just the victim of a crazy mother and telekinetic powers? What was with all those dolls? Why am I even bothering to ask these questions of a Claudio Fragasso script?

Now, if I've learned anything from nunsploitation films, it's that as soon as a bunch of young women are sealed up in a convent, they start dropping habits faster than an AFL player gearing up for a urine test. Unfortunately, this film suffers from a severe boob drought. Mattei must have realised this deficiency, because he would make up for it in the following year with the True Story of the Nuns of Monza, a film which has no shortage of hot nun-on-nun action. Ever the frugal filmmaker, Mattei shot several of the scenes for Nuns of Monza at the same time as The Other Hell.

I think Mattei was going for The Exorcist meets The Omen meets Rosemary's Baby meets... whatever other bits from successful films he could shoehorn in. It's confusingly edited and makes not a lick of sense, but then it is a Bruno Mattei film. The Goblin soundtrack for The Other Hell was appropriated from the Joe D'Amato film Buio Omega (which also stars Franca Stoppi), and it works okay here as well. All in all, this film is okay, but if you want to introduce yourself to nunsploitation, there are far more nuntastic films out there.

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