I often don't know how to react to nunsploitation movies. Apart from the feminist and queer-activist objections that I might raise about the exploitation elements in nunsploitation, I'm perhaps more deeply conflicted by the religious implications. Depending on who's behind the camera, these films either indulge in anti-religious straw-manning or they function as religious propaganda. Sometimes, they'll do both within the same damned movie. Alucarda (1977, directed by Juan López Moctezuma), a key nunsploitation film from Mexico, makes no pretense of a coherent theological critique or even a coherent story, though I think it mostly functions on the religious propaganda side of the equation.
Justine, whose mother died in childbirth, is sheltered in a convent. Upon her arrival, she's greeted by her roommate, Alucarda, a girl her age who mysteriously appears behind her. Alucarda chafes at the strict life in the convent and steals away with Justine to explore the woods, where they form a bond and promise to die together, neither one able to bear life without the other. They encounter a goat-faced Roma who warns them of sinister forces about afoot. The girls press on undeterred, and eventually wind up in the mausoleum where Justine was given birth. There is indeed a dark force in the tomb, and when the girls return to the convent, it possesses them. The goat-faced man reappears and encourages the girls to make a pact with the Devil and engage in a ceremonial orgy. During their lessons the next day, the Devil makes himself known as the girls refute the teachings of St. Theresa and hail the kingdom of Satan on earth. Their teacher, Sister Angelica, attempts to drive out the devil, but the incidents of possession become more severe until Father Lazaro decides that the only hope is an outright exorcism. This goes awry, killing Justine, and when the proceedings are interrupted by the unbelieving village doctor, he takes Alucarda to his home, where Alucarda proceeds to seduce the doctor's blind daughter, meanwhile Justine's influence is still felt from beyond the grave, as if she were still somehow alive...
In short, this film is bonkers. It's filled with weird non-sequiturs and design elements. The convent in this church is seemingly subterranean, suggesting that Christ is somehow a Chthonic god (and we all know who is the Cthonic deity in the Christian pantheon, don't we?). The main meeting space in this convent has a veritable army of crucifixes behind the altar, and yet this army is insufficient to keep the devil away. Perhaps it's piety that attracts him rather than sin. I dunno what the hell the makers of this film are saying along these lines. It's not usual for priests to be in charge of convents, and the nuns wear no kind of liturgical habit I've ever seen, so maybe this isn't a straw version of the Catholic Church at all, but some weird renegade cult. This notion has problems of its own, though, because if they're a cult, they have some measure of the truth on their side because their version of Satan is totally real.
As a digression, the notion that Satan is real and directing our actions is a problem I have in general with a lot of horror movies. I mean, I can suspend my disbelief for this as a fantasy trope if I must, but this assertion so often results in the most reactionary horror movies, the ones that, as I've mentioned, function as religious propaganda, that I'm usually irritated by the trope and unwilling to make the effort. I generally prefer a level of ambiguity, but that's my own unbelief talking so take it with a grain of salt. I am annoyed that this film casts the doctor as a straw atheist, though, and there's no papering over that.
As much as the religious elements of this film seem incoherent. they're less obnoxious than the association of lesbianism and sexual freedom with Satan. This is one of the less savory elements of the nunsploitation film, though I suppose I can take it on its face as an example of religion as instrument of brutal repression and anti-religion as liberation. I can get behind that, though I don't know that that's what this movie is going for. I wish this film's catalog of Satanic behavior was more expansive than this, because as mischief goes, going around screaming blasphemies seems relatively tame compared to the activities of, say, the devil cult in Rosemary's Baby or the kids in Blood on Satan's Claw. Until the end, that is, when our pair of lesbian demonesses start hurling hellfire and mayhem like they're the second coming of Carrie White.
As an assemblage of horror movie tropes, this has a lot in common with the mainstream of Mexican horror. This is a "blender" movie, taking elements of the lesbian vampire movie (this is nominally based on "Carmilla"), the Marquis de Sade ("Justine"), and The Exorcist. While this kind of moviemaking often results in an incoherent sprawl (boy, howdy! Does it!), there's certainly an undeniable energy behind it, too. Whatever this films other flaws, it's never boring.
In truth, all of this is secondary to the imagery. This movie is rich with startling scenes. Some of these are subtle: Alucarda materializing behind Justine, for instance. Some are baroque: Justine, naked, rising from a coffin filled with blood. Some are just plain outrageous: Sister Angelica, killed by Justine, hoisted aloft as a make-shift crucifix once all of the other crosses are burning. Viewed only as a cascade of images, this plays as if the filmmakers have slipped the audience a mild hit of acid. This is the genre version of the psychedelic freakouts of Jodorowsky (with whom director Juan L. Moctezuma was a collaborator), in which the narrative matters less than the altered states of consciousness of its characters as transmitted to the audience.
Note: my current tally includes a rewatch of the 1932 version of Murder in the Rue Morgue, which I wrote about in my 50 Horror films series last month.
Current Challenge tally:
Total Viewings: 18
First Time Viewings: 11
Around the Web:
Kevin at For It Is Man's Number goes for a body shot with Torso.
Scott at Blasphemous Tomes serves up some Fresh Meat.
Tim at The Other Side isn't so down with a Vampire Happening.
Dr. AC has a quartet of bon bons in Little Shop of Horrors, Santa Sangre, Dementia 13, and The Stepford Wives in his latest round-up.
Eric at Expelled Grey Matter finds Jess Franco's Female Vampire to be well-shot but tedious, which is about par for the course with Franco.
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