Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The Other Hell (1980)

In the early to mid 1980s there existed a widespread (at least in my area) state of satanic panic. Rumors abounded about kids being abducted (they had to be virgins and have blue eyes, so I was half-safe) by Satanists driving around in a dark blue van. Consequently, any blue vans in town were avoided, especially if spotted after dark. The Proctor and Gamble logo was accused of being symbolic of the company's concealed, satanic intent. It was posited that the band KISS's name was actually an anagram for "Knights In Satan's Service." 

Anyway, my friends and I used to play out in the woods, riding our bikes, shooting BB guns, what-have-you. One day, we came across a dilapidated pole building. Spray-painted throughout on the walls were what we took for Satanic symbols (pentagrams, trip-sixes, etcetera). In a corner of the building was a dead deer, its head smashed under a large rock. On seeing this, we all started getting pretty freaked out. And then we heard a deep angry voice exclaim the words, "Get out!" Turning, we saw a man standing outside the building. At his side was a very large German Shepherd. We didn't need any more coercion. We ran for it. In retrospect, one has to question; was this disused building a hangout/ritual site for Satanists? Were kidnapping devil worshippers cruising the streets looking for children to steal? Probably not, but uncertainty and the unknowable can breed fear, and we were young enough to be scared.

The Other Hell (aka Guardian Of Hell, aka L'altro inferno) starts with a nun lost in some seriously creepy catacombs (it looks much like those in Guanajuato, but I don't recall gleaning an actual location from the narrative). She eventually makes her way to Sister Assunta's (Paola Montenero) embalming morgue/laboratory (?) which is lit like a Mario Bava film. A half-naked nun lies on the table, and Assunta delivers a zealous screed about the improprieties of the deceased nun and how sin starts with the genitals, which she then cuts into. Father Inardo (Andrea Aureli), an old-school priest arrives to re-consecrate the convent and drive out the Devil, whom the nuns, to a person, believe is alive and well and actively causing havoc in their midst. But when Sister Rosaria (Susan Forget) breaks out in stigmata and goes off the deep end, the church decides to send in young priest, Valerio (Carlo De Mejo), who believes that all the eerie occurrences can be explained away with science and psychology. Meanwhile, a mysterious, masked nun (Francesca Carmeno) prowls the convent with her pet cat. Father Valerio digs deeper and begins to find that Satan may, in fact, not dwell only in the hearts and minds of men.

As a nunsploitation film, there is a pervasive sense of sleaze to be found here, but it doesn't feel as grimy as other movies in the subgenre. The only nudity is with the dead nun at the start. The nuns themselves all come off as touched-in-the-head, and when they're not glaring forebodingly, they're ranting like maniacs. But the film seems more interested in the "is-it-supernatural-or-not?" aspects of the plot.

The basis for the movie's conflict comes in the form of intellectualism versus spiritualism, and this is embodied not in the affected nuns, but in the priest characters. Inardo believes that Satan is a real being who can interact freely with the real world to spread his evil. Valerio is the champion of psychology and believes that there is no evil that is not created solely through human means. Of course, there is an answer to the mystery, and let's just say that neither priest ends up very happy with the truth they find. 

So, then, does the film itself come down on the side of the physical or the metaphysical? My take is it's a bit of both, actually. The acts of sacrilege portrayed throughout can be seen as a true challenge to religion and faith, but the depiction of religious characters can also be seen as taking shots at an easy target. If you've ever been around priests and nuns for any lengthy period of time (I attended parochial school for nine years, myself), you would know that while they can come off as odd in their devotion, they're certainly (well, mostly) not as insane as they are often shown in movies like this one.

While the setting of the film inherently invites theological debate (and any "serious" discussion about this movie and those like it springs more from the religious trappings or the beliefs of the people doing the discussing and not anything intrinsic to the plot or characters), much of the horrific imagery is based on the idea of shock and transgression. A burnt head turns up in the tabernacle where the host wafers are kept. A nun's mouth bleeds when she takes a host wafer in her mouth. A bible spontaneously combusts. This is all meant to be jolting to the audience, this idea that religious items are treated not only with disdain but they can be actively harmful to a person. This leads into the notion of mass hysteria that the film touches on. The nuns of the convent are so convinced that their place is a dwelling for Satan, they stage a bonfire in the courtyard and fling items onto the conflagration in an obviously misguided effort to divest themselves of evil. It's an interesting comment on how large groups of people can act irrationally when faced with the unexplainable and alludes to the infamous witch trials of the 16th and 17th centuries.

The most interesting facet of the film to me, though, is the mystery of the masked nun and her cat. She's shown lying in a room festooned with hanging, naked dolls, and her appearance when wearing her habit is reminiscent of the killer from Bava's early giallo, Blood And Black Lace. While she appears at almost every instance of violence in the film, the viewer is left with the dilemma of whether or not she plays a direct part in them. When her secret is finally revealed, it's at once plausible and fantastical. The climax plays dramatically, and there is considerable tension, even pathos created. And then, it goes straight over the top. Afterward, there's a baffling epilogue which feels like it was written strictly for exposition (or the production ran out of money) and one last shock. Sartre is quoted as saying, "Hell is other people." Perhaps that was what director Bruno Mattei was going for with this film?

Mattei (credited here as Stefan Oblowsky) has always been considered something of a hack in Italian cinema. His movies are usually blatant rip-offs of popular films (egregiously so, even among Italian filmmakers), and The Other Hell is no exception. There are influences from Carrie, The Omen, Rosemary's Baby, The Exorcist, and even fellow Italian Lucio Fulci's Zombie. One thing is certain; you cannot accuse the man of not trying to please everyone. Mattei's movies, while never achieving greatness, are almost never (but not always) less than enjoyable, albeit workmanlike. Still, there's enough to keep one's attention here and provide a quick-paced ninety minutes for your delectation. 

MVT: Bruno Mattei, while not displaying a tremendous amount of style, does do an admirable job of creating a sense of atmosphere appropriate to the material. This is where films like this one succeed, uneasy impressions rather than overt scares. But there is enough grisly substance to keep exploitation fans happy, too.

Make Or Break: The first sighting of the masked nun creates a nice twist and foreshadows that there may be something more going on under the surface. It's unexpected and a great image.

Score: 6.5/10


  1. Good stuff, Todd! I tried watching this a while back but just couldn't get into it. I gave up really quick, but then again I'm not the biggest Nunsploitation fan (or Mattei fan for that matter). I may have to give it another shot one of these days.

  2. Thanks for reading, Aaron. I'm not a huge Mattei or nunsploitation fan either, but I found this one to be pretty good. There was just enough craziness to keep my interest.

  3. This is why I love your blog. Bravo!

  4. Thanks for reading and the comments, John. Much appreciated.