18 Essential Nunsploitation Films

Photo-Illustration: Vulture; Photos by Full Moon House Video, Film Concept Group, Arrow Video and Warner Bros.

Because no one can apparently leave women alone for a single second, cinema has a long and torrid fascination with nuns in compromising positions.

This fascination, typically referred to in film form as nunsploitation, pops up in the work of polarizing auteurs (Ken Russell and, with Benedetta, now Paul Verhoeven), pornographers (Jesús Franco), and, naturally, auteur pornographers (Walerian Borowczyk). Like most exploitation subgenres, nunsploitation boomed in the 1970s, primarily in majority Catholic countries. Some filmmakers found it the ideal vehicle for serious critiques of decadence, repression, and hypocrisy within the Catholic Church. Others didn’t think quite so hard about it because they didn’t need to — no other exploitation subgenre offers such a ready-made opportunity to wave a middle finger and an X-rating in the Vatican’s general direction.

And, not to be rude, but a large part of the reason directors put nuns on-camera is because they’re strange-looking creatures. In a group, they form a unified and self-replicating image, virtually indistinguishable from behind. On her own, the nun cuts an unmistakable silhouette, veiled and concealed from the neck down like a smooth-lined pillar of religious devotion. Onscreen she’s the conceptual descendant of pagan priestesses, subject to visions and possessions, and linked directly to God through a vocation and a vow of chastity. Sequestered in her cloister, she’s a fixed point on which filmmakers project weighty philosophical dichotomies: good and evil, science and religion, indulgence and self-denial, pain and pleasure, repression and libertinism, the sacred and the profane.

The men of nunsploitation are generally destabilizing and punitive forces. They arrive as investigators, inquisitors, archbishops, dukes, domineering fathers, and exorcists, cloaked in the patriarchal power of church and state. Rape scenes are not irregular. The patriarchal fist is always closing around the final act of nunsploitation films, handing down sentences and doling out medieval punishments. This is a rare subgenre where you can almost always expect the Spanish Inquisition.

Most nunsploitation films are genre films. The blood looks fake and there’s lots of it. Everyone moans during sex, and the Italian directors particularly like to throw in a round of quality eye-fucking beforehand. Some of these nuns are wilting violets whose personalities are unfortunately reduced to their virginity, but many are women with appetites. Haughty and half-crazed mothers superior — absolute female authority embodied — either exercise profound influence over their convents or are unseated by their rivals. The sisters in their care gossip, backstab, and sneak into each other’s cells.

Which, of course, means plenty of nunsploitation films are pornographic. Nothing raises the sexual stakes like a vow of chastity. Break it with your fellow sister or your peasant boyfriend and you’ll have to self-flagellate in front of everyone (and probably still go to Actual Hell). With so few men around, excluding the director’s chair, lesbianism is apparently par for the course. Corporeal punishment and self-imposed penance make for built-in kinkiness. A male character’s entry into a woman-only convent sealed off from the world is already a symbolic act of penetration, and the men involved regularly make it a literal one too.

The artistic separation of nuns from their piety, however, well predates nunsploitation on film. In the margins of a 14th-century French manuscript, a cheeky nun leads her monk boyfriend by the balls. Bernino completed the Ecstasy of Saint Teresa in 1652, effectively arguing that the delineation between religious and sexual ecstasy was, at best, one of semantics. Nunsploitation is, in its own way, a twisted part of this lineage. Lots of it is terrible, some of it is remarkable. But if you have no memory for faces? Well, good luck.

18. Love Letters of a Portuguese Nun (1977)

Just so we’re clear — Love Letters of a Portuguese Nun is functionally a porno. But no self-respecting list of crazed nuns can do without an entry from Jesús Franco, the Spanish erotic and B-movie filmmaker with directing credits in the triple digits. The third of his ’70s nunsploitation films, Love Letters of a Portuguese Nun follows Maria Rosalea, a peasant girl caught cavorting by pervy Father Vincente (spaghetti-western mainstay Willliam Berger), and sentenced to join a convent. Things get Satanic real quick, and Franco warms up with lesbian high jinks before getting into hard-core rape-orgies attended by the Devil himself — you can tell it’s the Devil, you see, because of the absurd amount of fake knuckle hair glued to his fingers. Between the cartoonish moaning and the that-doesn’t-even-look-like-blood blood, Love Letters of a Portuguese Nun checks off a lot of trope boxes: claims to be based on real events, set during the Inquisition, involves a humiliating chastity test and sexual interrogation, etc. But nothing is more on the porny nunsploitation nose than all the writhing one-on-one action punctuated by shouts of Latin (probably?) as the camera zooms in on uncloistered tits. Or the moment when the entire convent rips their habits open in a hysterical mass-flash. You get it. If you’re not a hard-core-exploitation nerd, probably don’t start here.

17. Story of a Cloistered Nun (1973)

A pulpy nun melodrama allegedly based on historical events, Domenico Paolella’s Story of A Cloistered Nun is pretty much just that, and not a very interesting one. Cherubic teenage noblewoman Carmela is the nun in question, locked in the convent for fooling around with a peasant boy and refusing to marry her betrothed. (The betrothal ceremony, in which she and her would-be husband are wailing babies flanked by their grinning fathers, does make for a genuinely striking opening.) Her arrival kick-starts a sexual rivalry between the mother superior and fiery Sister Elizabeth — naked whipping, floor-licking, and other debased punishments ensue. But Paolella’s direction doesn’t discriminate, dipping into the local men’s bathhouse where Sister Elizabeth’s half-naked lover Diego proselytizes about how he enjoys women, although “their constant desire to catch the male is so transparent in every gesture that sometimes they’re boring.” (Sure, man.) Behind the cloister seal, the sisters gossip and backstab each other, sneak out and throw parties, driven mad by men but mostly each other. It’s a softcore fantasy with a knife fight on the side. The men call the shots until they don’t, most notably in a final display of sisterhood that can be read as a feminist refutation of the Judgment of Solomon if you really squint at it. Maybe close one eye. And tilt your head too.

16. The Lady of Monza (1969)

“Her other love was God” goes the pulpy tagline for The Lady of Monza, a precursor to nunsploitation’s ’70s heyday. British cult film actress Anne Heywood plays Sister Virginia, a well-born Spanish nun who falls madly in love with her neighbor (and, frankly, her rapist), the insatiable Italian nobleman Giampaolo. After fondling some breasts and murdering a local tax official in the movie’s opening scene, Giampaolo hides out in the convent — at least until Sister Virginia decides she’s had enough and turns him over to the authorities. She’ll fall prey to his charms anyway and recant that decision later, then try to do the same for her vows. Her attendant inner conflict predictably manifests as a thorny cilice worn in penance because nunsploitation movies just love thorny cilices. The seeds of the subgenre’s critical streak are here as well, if somewhat undeveloped. The movie is aware of the Church’s connection to power, and the male Church hierarchy arrives right on time to lay down the law. Shacking up in a convent with your boyfriend is generally frowned upon, and it ends up being only a few thumb screws away from black magic. Nevertheless The Lady of Monza takes it easy on the subgenre’s gore and porn combo, presenting itself — albeit very melodramatically — as a tragic love story that ends in subjugation and death.

15. To the Devil … a Daughter (1976)

Obnoxiously punctuated disaster To the Devil … a Daughter is among the last films produced by Hammer, the British production company that revitalized the Gothic horror and monster genres successfully into the ’60s. It’s notable for little else, and lacks the classic Hammer style as it was an attempt by the flailing studio to capitalize on the post-Exorcist moment. Christopher Lee plays Father Michael Raynert, who interprets his movie-opening excommunication in you-can’t-fire-me-I-quit terms and promptly starts a new Satanic church. Years later, his doe-eyed goddaughter Catherine is his church’s hopelessly naïve and most devoted nun. She has been chosen to play bodily host to Astaroth, the demon baby being carted around B-roll of London in an armored incubator. (This Rosemary’s Baby sequel sucks, you guys.) Nowhere on this list is the prop department’s presence or budget so keenly felt, since apparently every Satanic orgy needs a life-size statue of the demon Astaroth fixed to an inverted cross with its legs spread, and wearing a gold spray-painted wig. As Catherine, Nastassja Kinski is creepy when she wants to be, albeit uncomfortably young for the role. Upon seeing the film, the novelist Dennis Wheatley (whose 1953 novel provided the movie’s source material) called it “outrageous and disgraceful” and banned Hammer from adapting his work. Maybe it’s aged into camp, but even then …

14. Extramuros (1985)

Extramuros is a movie about a woman trying to solve a problem in a grisly if effective way, and a bunch of men getting in the way for no good reason. Sor Àngela’s convent is broke, sick from a plague, falling apart, and in danger of getting shut down. Unable to wait for Jesus to send over a publicity-generating miracle, she takes matters into her own hands — quite literally, in fact — by faking stigmata with the help of her lover Sor Ana. Nothing kick-starts donations like Christ’s wounds manifest, but it’s an inconceivably painful ruse to maintain (and eventually, sickeningly, to cauterize). Every time the lie extends the camera pans ominously to a nervous-looking Sor Ana, and sure enough, everything goes to hell when the local branch of the Inquisition hears about the “miracle.” Worth noting is Extramuros’ somewhat unconventional narrative approach within the subgenre. Sor Àngela blasphemes not out of spite, rebellion, mania, or demonic possession, but out of love for Sor Ana and her convent. Their relationship is tender and devoted, rather than rampant with bodice-ripping desire. The movie’s inciting religious incident is a human act that’s never presented as otherwise to the audience, and its spiritual concerns are minimal. Maybe I’m overselling it, in which case, just know that Extramuros also looks terrible and is needlessly hard to follow in places. As you were.

13. Alucarda (1978)

There’s no shortage of screaming, thunder, evil laughter, or fire suits in Alucarda, the best-known film by Mexican horror director and Alejandro Jodorowsky collaborator Juan López Moctezuma. Set in a 19th-century convent orphanage, it follows Alucarda and new girl Justine, who barely gets unpacked before Alucarda talks her into a giggly sisterhood suicide pact. Granted, Justine doesn’t share Alucarda’s taste for pure chaos — the latter opens a coffin for funsies and lunges at her priest through the confessional screen — but she’s stripped down and swept up in their Satanic initiation and Black Mass orgy all the same. While Justine’s pure heart isn’t built for possession, Alucarda hardly needs any encouragement, bringing down God’s house in a devilishly fun final 30 minutes. Alucarda doesn’t much resemble the other films on this list: Moctezuma’s nuns are practically mummified in their gauzy and soiled habits, and the convent chapel is a dark cavern calcified by centuries of candle wax and too many crucifixes. It also has a lot on its mind: idolatry, repression, hysteria, and science versus religion. Surprisingly, religion kind of … wins? After whisking Alucarda away from her own exorcism, the local doctor opens a book titled Satan, reads it for two whole seconds, then declares, “Rubbish. Pure rubbish.” Minutes later upon encountering a reanimated nun, he declares, “I’m a man of reason, and I am faced with something supernatural which frightens me!” Checkmate, atheists?

12. The Other Hell (1981)

If the subgenre name ends in -sploitation, it’s likely that Bruno Mattei gave it the old college try. Directing under a flurry of pseudonyms, Mattei churned out a hefty catalogue of everything-sploitation films on a tight budget, cycling through Nazis, women’s prisons, cannibals, rats, sharks, zombies, Vietnam, nuns, and multiple combinations therein. (No spoiling which combination concludes The Other Hell, but it’s bonkers.) The Other Hell, Mattei’s second crack at nunsploitation, is the story of an extremely cursed convent. A quick first-ten-minutes explication conversation establishes someone had Satan’s baby, someone killed the last mother superior, and “the genitals are the door to evil!” By the end of this conversation, both nuns are dead. Sent to investigate the strange happenings is Father Valerio, a cocky priest and “ecclesiastical detective” for whom “Satan made me do it” is not going to fly. His standoffs with hot-tempered Mother Vincenza are nothing short of high camp: “Save your dictatorial methods for your unfortunate nuns. I’m outside your jurisdiction!” But the reverend mother has bigger problems, mainly whatever’s in the attic and the “faceless” “spirit” (mind the budget) wandering the halls. Along the way, there’s time for a few battles of the sexes — “All you can produce are screams but I produce a child!” — set to a reused synth score by Goblin lifted from 1979’s Beyond the Darkness. It’s a damn mess. But who cares? Darling, it’s camp!

11. Convent of Sinners (1986)

Of the three film adaptations of Denis Diderot’s late 18th-century novel La Religieuse, Joe D’Amato’s Convent of Sinners is the loosest in every sense of the term. The continually lauded 1966 version with Anna Karina was the French answer to Audrey Hepburn in The Nun’s Story; the 2013 version (also French) was pure festival bait with a subtle color palette and Isabelle Huppert. As the wild and naked Italian middle child of this lineage, Convent of Sinners shares few of its counterparts’ concerns, fusing multiple story lines and characters together in order to make room for all the fondling. Diderot’s protagonist Suzanne Simonin is a nun only by circumstance. Her family can’t afford to marry her to anyone but Christ, and her lack of true vocation animates La Religieuse’s interior struggle. Convent of Sinners gestures at this interior struggle but is mostly interested in Suzanne’s body, which D’Amato bathes in diffused light and drifts the camera over with a distinctly ’80s pornographer’s touch. The nuns take lots of baths, masturbate to organ music, and thrust to harpsichords — this is a movie in a state of perpetual undress and fairly shallow for it. But there’s a case to be made that no one wants depth from the pornier side of nunsploitation. They want movies like Convent of Sinners: a breathy series of erotic poses with an exorcism at the end.

10. Dark Waters (1993)

Nuns and cliffs are a surprisingly common cinematic pairing, but none shove a sister over the edge quicker than Mariano Baino’s chiller Dark Waters, which opens with a fatal forced gravity check. One 20-year time hop later, the vibes on the remote island convent and its surrounding cliffs have not exactly improved. Protagonist Elizabeth discovers this for herself when she pays a visit, having been instructed by her late father to maintain his regular payments to the nuns but curious to know how exactly they’re spending it. For a ’90s movie, Dark Waters is wholly indebted to ’70s and early ’80s horror. Baino’s sense of eeriness comes directly from Dario Argento’s, slowly panning over the dead fishes covering the island’s beaches before heading down the twisting corridors of the waterlogged convent. It even has its own pair of The Shining twins and a rubbery Lovecraftian beast. Atmosphere isn’t everything, but it does most of the heavy lifting as Elizabeth discovers she’s perhaps more involved in the ritualistic weirdness of the convent than she thought. The camera regularly fixates on the decrepit, white-eyed mother superior and faceless figures in dark robes carrying flaming crosses — Et tu, Opus Dei? Skewing heavily toward the horror end of the nunsploitation spectrum, sexuality is a rare non-theme here. Put another way: Most of Dark Waters’ flesh is not for viewing pleasure. It’s either charred or disemboweled.

9. Behind Convent Walls (1978)

The late but still controversial Polish director Walerian Borowczyk liked sex, tits, food, and death, quite possibly in that order. Behind Convent Walls, his ninth film and one of the breezier entries in his filmography, checks off all these boxes with a light-on-plot chronicle of naughty nuns and their abbess’s futile efforts to wrangle them. It also contains enough pubic hair bathed in white light for nerds on Letterboxd to classify it as “eroticarthouse,” a term I personally hope to never say out loud. While its individual characters feel largely interchangeable, the movie hums with life and pleasure when Borowczyk lets his nuns twirl around the chapel in a painterly tableau and scamp through the convent. No other director on this list references St. Teresa’s orgiastic ecstasies so directly: The handheld camera ogles individual sisters not only having sex but fondling each other in the confessional, pressing themselves to the cloister bars, and surreptitiously masturbating with a hand-carved dildo with Jesus’ face painted on the handle. Its ending is rather grim for a movie that is otherwise sex high jinks set to organ crescendos in rooms bedecked with red flowers, but no cinematic convent can abandon chastity without the nearest bishop bringing down the hammer. Borowczyk can always be relied upon for hyperindulgent, sexed-up filmmaking, and Behind Convent Walls is no exception.

8. Häxan (1922)

Häxan isn’t nunsploitation, per say, but it would be sacrilegious to omit cinema’s first truly crazed nuns. The work of Danish director Benjamin Christensen, Häxan opens with a lecture on the history of witchcraft, then transforms into a heady and beautifully shot silent docudrama. In the segment about demonic possession in convents, a nun tormented by visions of a tongue-wagging devil desecrates the eucharist before spreading her dancing mania to her sisters. Christensen gives no quarter to spiritual explanations of witchcraft and possession, but here he concedes that Satan is “real” insofar as the power of belief makes things real to believers. It’s this paradox that made nuns sitting ducks in their convents, he contends, where “fear of the devil escalated into hopeless despair.” In its appraisal of women and witchcraft, Häxan is distinctly ahead of his time. Christensen specifically outlines how behaviors exhibited by historical “witches” have a basis in real medical and psychological maladies — being the 1920s, he calls those maladies “hysteria.” But what he lacks in medical understanding he makes up for in social critique, concluding the film with an impassioned demand for the protection of women tossed into asylums. Christensen sees a straight line from witch burnings to boiling-hot sanatorium showers, then draws it himself in the movie’s final moments with a simply executed transition that is genuinely breathtaking.

7. Flavia, the Heretic (1974)

Although it dispenses its gore in short bursts rather than prolonged sequences, you’ll need a strong stomach to get through Flavia, The Heretic, which contains a nonzero number of graphic castrations. The titular Flavia (Florinda Bolkan) is a firecracker nun who hates her father for throwing her in the convent and hates men somewhat on principle. Helping her misandry along is the gleefully manic Sister Agata (French stage icon María Casares, having the time of her life), always happy to monologue on how men oppress women out of fear and how the Christian Madonna is an extension of the pagan Venus. When those pesky infidels sail into town, Muslim general Ahmed’s deep brown eyes are all Flavia needs to go full Crusades-era Patty Hearst. Chaos, sacrilege, and surreal cannibalistic group sex ensues. The morning after, Flavia dons a man’s armor (a deliberate reference to another early feminist icon and martyr) and starts on her to-do list: “First revenge, then liberty!” Cinematographer and Michelangelo Antonioni collaborator Alfio Contini mixes wide landscape shots with leering zooms and strangling close-ups, making Flavia, The Heretic a beautiful film but a visceral one. No man or Abrahamic religion is free from its spite. In Ken Russell’s The Devils (don’t worry, we’ll get there), Father Grandier delivers the movie’s most famous line as he is tortured: “I have been a man. I have loved women. I have enjoyed power.” By this metric, Flavia is by far his closest female counterpart.

6. Killer Nun (1979)

While Killer Nun is certainly about a nun who kills people, it’s also not quite the throwaway shock-athon its crappy English-language title implies. Directed by Giulio Berruti, it’s a campy giallo film that is — stick with me here — oddly reminiscent in places of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? There’s the captivating, aging bombshell (Anita Ekberg, in her late 40s) giving a physical and paranoid performance plus the simple-yet-effective horror trick of trapping a character with faulty legs using only a flight of stairs. Ekberg plays Sister Gertrude, a statuesque care-home ward losing her grip on reality thanks to a morphine addiction. Correlation does not equal causation, of course, but the connection between her rate of morphine blackouts and the rate at which her patients are getting murdered might be something worth looking into. Berruti loves intense close-ups and Ekberg is happy to oblige, laying it on thick with every variation of fury and anguish. Killer Nun is overwrought and outrageous, but it has real style too. Alessandro Alessandroni’s spectacular score punctuates the film with bursts of atonal guitar strumming. The ingenious use of baby-pink rubber gloves is just the cherry on top of its splashy color palette, and the bygone ’70s interiors are delicious. Warhol superstar Joe Dallesandro plays the hot doctor, for crying out loud. The sex is loud, the thrills are cheap, and Killer Nun is a fleshy, meaty, salacious melodrama befitting its star.

5. Ms .45 (1981)

Ms .45 does not take place in a convent and contains no actual nuns. But it’s definitely an exploitation film, and included here because its climactic moment is a donning of the habit par excellence. A 17-year-old Zoë Tamerlis plays Thana, a mute seamstress in a bygone version of both Manhattan’s Garment District and the fashion industry. In the space of the movie’s first act, she’s raped twice by two separate men, the second of which she kills with an iron. Where lesser rape-revenge filmmakers would have hurried Thana along into instant man-killer girlboss, director Abel Ferrara (Bad Lieutenant, King of New York) spends a surprising amount of time exploring her debilitating trauma with anxiety-inducing jump cuts and a relentless sound design that amplifies every thwack, thud, and gun shot. Thana’s nighttime Midtown vigilantism and a would-be attacker wielding nunchucks places Ms .45’s New York in the same universe as The Warriors’, though Taxi Driver is the most obvious inspiration. Prior to the climatic Halloween party, Thana puts on her nun veil, picks up her gun, and strikes a violent pose in her bedroom mirror Travis Bickle style — the “You talkin’ to me” is implied. (And the shot of her rosary’s shadow dangling over her garter gun holster? Pure exploitation poetry.) The men of Ms .45 are unrepentant pigs, but its moral universe is a little edgier than you might expect. But let’s also get one thing straight: There is no female Joker. Joker is the male Ms .45.

4. Black Narcissus (1947)

Securing a hefty budget freed up by the unconditional surrender of the Nazis, British postwar filmmakers Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger spared no expense on Black Narcissus, the exquisite missionary horror-drama-epic loaded with all-consuming grandeur and a disorienting, gestural eroticism. Led by Deborah Kerr’s Sister Clodagh, a small group of Anglican nuns set out to convert a remote Himalayan palace (read: former harem) into a hospital and school for the local “mountain peasants.” They’re immediately in over their heads, but part of the brilliance of Black Narcissus is its deliberate vagueness: You never see any malevolent force act upon the sisters, and the sisters themselves struggle to articulate what is happening to them — only that they feel haunted by once-forgotten pasts and stupefied by the sheer enormity of their surroundings. A breeze is always lifting the corners of the sisters’ veils, a seemingly harmless undercurrent that, like all the undercurrents in this movie, is anything but. Black Narcissus uses its sumptuous, exoticized landscape to conjure its villain out of the magnetic Kathleen Byron as the teetering Sister Ruth, who, given a crumb of male attention from local British official Dean, adopts a proto-Kubrick stare and singlehandedly cranks up the movie’s stakes. Black Narcissus isn’t quite a nunsploitation film (not enough -sploitation, quite frankly), but it is the subgenre’s most influential predecessor. And while certain aspects have aged poorly, Powell and Pressburger’s condemnatory view of the twilight of the British empire still intrigues. In other words, it’s not the “primitive” peoples in the valley below coming undone in the absence of smog.

3. School of the Holy Beast (1974)

Historically speaking, Catholicism’s track record in Japan is not exactly great. (Your favorite failed priest made a movie about exactly this a few years ago.) Nevertheless Japanese filmmakers took to nunsploitation like true believers, and Norifumi Suzuki’s School of the Holy Beast is among the most stunning from anywhere. Suzuki’s narrative style is serrated — he’s more cynical than his average European counterpart, and there’s a startling Nagasaki aside that could come from nowhere else. Through protagonist Maya Takigawa, Suzuki expresses total distaste for organized religion’s hypocrisy and perversion; early on, she refers to the convent as “a place where women stop being women.” What Maya lacks in vocation she makes up for in motive: to investigate the death of the mother she never knew at Sacred Heart Convent. Once inside, detective work makes room for lesbian sex framed by flowers, sneakily wolfing down phallic sausages, bitch slapping, and bloody corporeal discipline termed “God’s punishment.” Suzuki’s intense interpretation of the pain-pleasure dichotomy undergirds the movie’s most gorgeous scene, in which Maya is bound by a cilice of thorns and beaten with bunches of long-stemmed roses for her heresy. Eager to disorient his audience, Suzuki’s camera spins and tilts, then pauses on symmetrical frames that turn the uniformity of the nuns’ habits and expressions cultlike and sinister. Mixing gallons of bodily fluids, graphic sexual violence, and a Black Narcissus–ian cliff face, School of the Holy Beast is outrageously grotesque and shockingly beautiful. And in true nunsploitation form, it’s black and white and red all over.

2. Mother Joan of the Angels (1960)

Jerzy Kawalerowicz’s Mother Joan of the Angels is an incredible piece of filmmaking, Polish, postwar, or otherwise. Although it predates Ken Russell’s The Devils by 11 years, it’s often slotted as its narrative (if certainly not stylistic) counterpart. At the beginning of Mother Joan, Father Garniec (Grandier in Russell’s version) is dead. His blackened execution pyre stands in a barren field, a leitmotif driven like a stake through the heart of the film. Since his death hasn’t fixed the possession problem, the authorities dispatch Father Jozef Suryn, whose somber vocation and murmured Latin is no match for wild-eyed Mother Joan. In addition to quite possibly pioneering the possessed backbend during a transfixing group exorcism, Lucyna Winnicka is astounding as Mother Joan, her already dramatic features gone frighteningly elastic. Kawalerowicz lets the camera hover at eye level, pulling the audience into conspiratorial conversations and staring down at a prostrated Suryn framed so as to resemble an inverted cross. Mother Joan does not fixate on far-reaching social commentary or political concerns. The Vatican and the state are notably absent. Instead it’s a lean story about repression — Kawalerowicz considered it a film against dogma and a thwarted love story — and the evil it can drive people to do. And evil, Mother Joan ultimately decides, is not the devil’s work. It is born only of the human heart.

1. The Devils (1971)

The Devils is a tortured masterpiece. It is virtually unseen in its intended form, and forever tied to its (losing) battle with censors inside Warner Brothers and everywhere else. Made a decade after filmmaker Ken Russell’s conversion to Catholicism and filmed at Pinewood Studios like Black Narcissus before it, The Devils is a feverish and damning indictment of the Church’s marriage of mutual convenience to the state and the political expediency of blasphemy. Vanessa Redgrave plays Sister Jeanne des Agnes, the hunchbacked mother superior of a Loudon cloister who becomes sexually obsessed with the influential priest Father Grandier. Furious to discover he has secretly married, she accuses him of possessing her — music to the ears of Grandier’s political and religious enemies. Looking to speed things along, they dispatch a special exorcist who, in scenes inspired by the Huxleyan image of a “rape in a public toilet,” brutalizes Sister Jeanne and the monstrous multi-headed mass of manic nuns in the convent. Russell knows who his villains are and he’s careful here, balancing Sister Jeanne’s viciousness and depravity with her repressed sexuality and horrifying victimhood. She exercises the lone malignant power accessible to her — to accuse a man of devil worship and possession — and instigates events that not only further subjugate her but destroy Loudon itself. For a tragic figure, she’s no object of pity. Then again, The Devils is, rather famously, no easy movie.

18 Essential Nunsploitation Films