Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Retro Review: THE OTHER HELL (1981)

(Italy - 1981; US release 1985)

Directed by Stefan Oblowsky (Bruno Mattei, Claudio Fragasso). Written by Claudio Fragasso. Cast: Franca Stoppi, Carlo De Mejo, Andrew Ray (Andrea Aureli), Francesca Carmeno, Susan Forget (Susanna Forgione), Frank Garfeeld (Franco Garofalo), Paola Montenero, Sandy Samuel (Ornella Picozzi), Tom Felleghy, Simone Mattioli. (R, 89 mins)

A relative latecomer to the '70s Nunsploitation craze, 1981's THE OTHER HELL is a bit of an outlier as far as the subgenre is concerned, in that its focus is primarily on horror and there's no onscreen sex. One of the key components of Nunsploitation is its recurring depiction of sexually repressed nuns letting themselves go and giving into their wicked, uninhibited carnal desires, usually with other sex-starved nuns. Though the mainly Italian subgenre really took off in the mid '70s, it began with the serious drama THE NUN OF MONZA in 1969, directed by Eliprando Visconti (nephew of Luchino Visconti) and starring British actress Anne Heywood. Heywood would find a niche in roles that depicted her in various states of prudish sexual repression, most notably the 1979 American film GOOD LUCK, MISS WYCKOFF, aka THE SHAMING, where she played a 40-year-old spinster schoolteacher in a small town in the 1950s who loses her virginity via rape and falls in love with her attacker. Domenico Paolella's STORY OF A CLOISTERED NUN (starring Catherine Spaak and Suzy Kendall) really got the ball rolling in 1973, which he followed quickly that same year with Heywood, back for more nunsploitative action in THE NUNS OF ST. ARCHANGEL. After that, the floodgates were open, with Florinda Bolkan in Gianfranco Mingozzi's FLAVIA THE HERETIC (1974), Francoise Prevost in Sergio Grieco's THE SINFUL NUNS OF ST. VALENTINE (1974), Susan Hemingway in Jess Franco's LOVE LETTERS OF A PORTUGUESE NUN (1977), Laura Gemser in Giuseppe Vari's SISTER EMANUELLE (1977), Anita Ekberg in Giulio Berruti's KILLER NUN (1978), Ligia Branice in Walerian Borowcyk's BEHIND CONVENT WALLS (1978), Paola Senatore in Joe D'Amato's IMAGES IN A CONVENT (1979), Zora Kerova in Bruno Mattei's THE TRUE STORY OF THE NUN OF MONZA (1980), and Eva Grimaldi in D'Amato's fashionably late CONVENT OF SINNERS in 1986. Though Italy was the primary purveyor of Nunsploitation, Japan got into the act with 1974's SCHOOL OF THE HOLY BEAST, 1976's CLOISTERED NUN: RUNA'S CONFESSION, and 1978's SISTER LUCIA'S DISHONOR, among a handful of others.

Like any genre fad that overstays its welcome and starts showing signs of running its course, Nunsploitation films got increasingly abhorrent, transgressive, and grubby-looking as time went on. They also tried experimenting with subgenre crossover in an attempt to shake things up. Franco Prosperi's THE LAST HOUSE ON THE BEACH (1978) combined Nunsploitation with the post-LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT/I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE rape/revenge subgenre, with Florinda Bolkan as a Mother Superior with a group of young girls being terrorized by a crew of rapists led by Ray Lovelock. Another example is THE OTHER HELL, which was shot simultaneously in 1980 with the same crew and much of the same cast as THE TRUE STORY OF THE NUN OF MONZA. Bruno Mattei (STRIKE COMMANDO) and writer Claudio Fragasso (TROLL 2) were the creative forces behind both, but while Mattei focused most of his attention on MONZA, Fragasso did the majority of the shot-calling on THE OTHER HELL, with both men splitting directorial duties over both films and credited under the shared pseudonym "Stefan Oblowsky." THE OTHER HELL deals with the requisite convent full of sexually repressed nuns, with Mother Superior Sister Vincenza (Franca Stoppi) convinced an evil force has been unleashed after two nuns appear to commit suicide under mysterious circumstances. Father Valerio (Lucio Fulci regular Carlo De Mejo) is sent by the Archbishop (Tom Felleghy) to investigate after an older priest, Father Inardo (Andrea Aureli, credited as "Andrew Ray") proves ineffective and later set ablaze by a supernatural force. There's a whole lot of very little that happens in THE OTHER HELL for the first hour and change. It's hobbled by a ponderously slow pace and cheap-looking cinematography that borders on the barely watchable, with some fleeting bits of chuckle-inducing lunacy like Sister Assunta's (Paola Montenero) rant about how "the genitals are the door to evil!" or a striking giallo-like discovery of a room filled with hanging, unclothed dolls lost amidst a lot of Valerio walking around and asking questions, the requisite stone-walling from Sister Vincenza, a few mysterious deaths, and an obvious red herring in twitchy groundskeeper Boris (Franco Garofalo, credited as "Frank Garfeeld"), the kind of socially-inept creep who grins a little too much when he has to cut the head off a chicken to prepare dinner.

But then something strange happens. There's a big revelation about a secret Sister Vincenza is hiding, all hell breaks loose, and suddenly, THE OTHER HELL gets its shit together and turns into a really good and genuinely atmospheric horror movie, almost like Mattei and Fragasso are trying to put a Dario Argento spin on the Nunsploitation genre. They essentially go for broke and just start throwing everything at the wall to see what sticks, turning a laborious dud into a dizzying, nonsensical Eurotrash mishmash of sexual repression, black magic, scientific mumbo jumbo, possession, exorcism, catchy Goblin cues recycled from BEYOND THE DARKNESS and two of their older albums, 1976's Roller and 1978's Il Fantastico Viaggio del Bagorozzo Mark (much like Mattei swiped huge chunks of Goblin's DAWN OF THE DEAD score for his 1980's HELL OF THE LIVING DEAD), and a couple of zombies because hey, why not? Giving a further boost to THE OTHER HELL's sudden jolt of life is another unhinged freakout of a performance by Stoppi--the Eva Green of early '80s Italian sleaze--breaking out every bonkers move in her batshit repertoire for the final act. Stoppi--who has a small but devoted cult following thanks to her unforgettable performance as Iris, the (wait for it) sexually repressed and maniacally insane housekeeper hopelessly in love with her necrophile employer (Kieran Canter) in BEYOND THE DARKNESS (aka BURIED ALIVE)--keeps things rather restrained for much of THE OTHER HELL, but about the same time that Mattei and Fragasso decide "Fuck it, whatever," she unleashes the beast, turning Sister Vincenza into a character almost as memorable as Iris. A tireless animal rights activist in Italy after she quit acting in the mid '80s, Stoppi died in 2011 at the age of 64, but a 2002 archival interview with her appears on Severin's new Blu-ray release of THE OTHER HELL and shows she had a good sense of humor about these kinds of movies. She comes off as thoroughly charming and thankfully nothing at all like the shrieking, wild-eyed crazy bitches she so excelled at playing onscreen.

Franca Stoppi (1946-2011)

Released in Italy in 1981, THE OTHER HELL didn't turn up in the US until the fall of 1985, when the short-lived Film Concept Group, a restructured Motion Picture Marketing co-owned by mobster-turned-future born again Christian motivational speaker Michael Franzese, acquired it and retitled it GUARDIAN OF HELL. That title actually makes a little more sense given what transpires, but the title was changed back to THE OTHER HELL when Vestron Video released it on VHS in 1987 with new artwork. FCG had GUARDIAN/OTHER in US theaters at the same time as another already several-years-old Italian acquisition, Andrea Bianchi's incredible Oedipal epic BURIAL GROUND, and below is visual proof of them playing in a first-run theater in Toledo, OH at the same time. It's hard to believe that actually happened, but there it is. FCG only released a few titles before folding, including Paul Naschy's THE CRAVING in 1985 (a retitling of 1980's THE NIGHT OF THE WEREWOLF), Mattei's RATS in 1986, Bobby A. Suarez's Filipino post-nuke WARRIORS OF THE APOCALYPSE in 1986, and John Grissmer's BLOOD RAGE re-edit NIGHTMARE AT SHADOW WOODS in 1987. I'm not sure how FCG managed to get such schlocky films prime spots in first-fun theaters, but I'd like to think it involved Franzese reminding a National Amusements regional manager "Nice little five-screen ya got there in Toledo...be a real shame if somethin' happened to it."

GUARDIAN OF HELL opening in Toledo, OH
on September 13, 1985, at the same theater as
BURIAL GROUND, somehow in its second week. 

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