Sunday, April 16, 2017

THE OTHER HELL - BLU-RAY REVIEW

In an extended prologue, Sister Cristina ventures into a dark, decrepit old crypt of a contemporary nunnery where Sister Assunta (Paola Montenero) apparently resides.  This gloomy place doubles as Sister Assunta’s makeshift laboratory of sorts, where she is in the midst of embalming a deceased ‘sinful nun’. Believing that (quote) “the genitals are the door to evil!” she angrily stabs the corpse in its groin, while her junior “assistant” Sister Cristina understandably watches in horror.  Seemingly, maybe even supernaturally, possessed by some malevolent spirit - a potential fact which is crudely implied by a shot of what appears to be a corpse with flashing red eyes - Sister Assunta becomes increasingly hysterical as she attacks Sister Cristina, stabbing her to death. And so begins Bruno Mattei’s scandalous THE OTHER HELL (1980), which is making its Blu-ray debut courtesy of those crazy cinema connoisseurs at Severin Films in what is surely the definitive version to date of this enjoyable—and at times truly delirious—nunsploitation shocker.

When, at this same sinister convent, another nun by the name of Sister Rosaria (the so-called “Susan Forget” [she probably wishes she could!] a.k.a. Susanna Forgioni), unexpectedly coughs-up blood and manifests stigmata after taking the holy sacrament, the Church sends in Father / padre Inardo (“Andrew Ray” a.k.a. Andrea Aureli) to investigate, but he gets nowhere thanks to the ever-paranoid—and exceedingly strict!—Mother Superior (Franca Stoppi, also seen as a similarly fanatical character that same year in “Oblowsky”/Mattei’s own, and much-more-sexploitative “sister” effort, The TRUE STORY OF THE NUN OF MONZA [1980]).  Undeterred, the Bishop (Tom Felleghy) appoints the level-headed Father Valerio (Carlo De Mejo) to continue with the investigation. Valerio believes that (quote) “evil exists in the hearts and minds of human beings”, but both his faith and skills as a sort of “ecclesiastical detective” will be challenged to their very limits by the horror that awaits him…

Although the late Joe D’Amato once bemoaned the poor box-office receipts of his own ‘nunsploitation’ efforts - including IMAGES IN A CONVENT (1979), which has since gone on to become hailed as a sort of “cornerstone” of its type! – many of these “nasty nun” movies (which have nowadays become more popularly known as “nunsploitation”) are now a popular subgenre among international trash/cult film fanatics. Perhaps not unexpectedly, the lion’s share of such fare hails from Italy (although various other Latin nations and even - go figure! - Japan have also proven to be quite prolific sources of similar material in all forms of media). However, unlike most of its softcore - and even full-on/all-out hardcore - sister films, THE OTHER HELL transposed many of the subgenre’s themes into a horror movie framework instead.  While definitely still falling firmly into nasty nun territory, Mattei’s film barely bares even a nipple and instead focuses primarily on the blood ’n’ guts horror aspects, even pilfering certain plot points from such popular films as William Friedkin’s THE EXORCIST (1973) and Brian De Palma’s CARRIE (1976).  Unofficially co-directed by scriptwriter—and future “solo” director—Claudio Fragasso, THE OTHER HELL was shot simultaneously - at the very same location, in fact - alongside Mattei’s other nunsploitation flick, the aforementioned THE TRUE STORY OF THE NUN OF MONZA, which utilized many of the same cast members as well.
Italian fotobusta courtesy of Steve Fenton.

As per any Mattei / Fragasso collaboration, everything is waaayyy over-the-top, even verging on the outright ridiculous at times, which is especially prominent in a number of the less-than-stellar performances.  For instance, Paola Montenero - an actress from the early days of Italian hardcore porn - as Sister Assunta provides just one such example as she rants and raves during the opening few minutes, whose hysterical histrionics establish the fevered tone early into the narrative.  It’s only Aureli and De Mejo, as colleague clerics Fathers Inardo and Valerio respectively, who give believably naturalistic performances.  In the face of escalating madness, Fr. Valerio possesses a keen acumen for the ungodly weirdness that is plaguing the convent.  Upon his arrival, Mother Vincenza and the other nuns are going around frantically torching anything and everything pertaining to Sister Rosaria’s death.  “The evil is getting burned!” exclaims Mother Vincenza. But Fr. Valerio, ever the gumshoe as well as a priest, responds much more rationally and cannily by saying, “The fingerprints tend to disappear in the ashes, too!”  Much like in a giallo, Fr. Valerio methodically tries to get to the bottom of the ever-mounting mystery, even at the risk of his own life; the film even resorts to clichéd red herrings like the convent’s caretaker Boris (“Frank Garfeeld” a.k.a. Franco Garofalo, another alumnus of THE TRUE STORY OF THE NUN OF MONZA).  But rather than becoming just another mundane mystery thriller, THE OTHER HELL really lets loose in its final act, into which figures everything from paranormal childbirth to a Pazuzu-like demon, with even some telekinesis thrown in to really mix things up. 

Previously available on VHS through Vestron Video in the U.S. (the preferable option) and in Canada from Lettuce Entertain You, Inc. (a cruddy cheapo label), THE OTHER HELL also secured a solid DVD edition from Shriek Show in 2003, which, at that time, amounted to one of their worthier releases.  Taken from a newly-transferred 35mm print jokingly claimed to have been “discovered behind a false wall in a Bologna nunnery” (HAH!), Severin’s new Blu-ray is a considerable improvement over Shriek Show’s DVD, and is much more representational of the movie’s low-budget origins.  Presented in its original 1.66:1 aspect ratio, some of the darker, possibly too-underlit scenes still reveal the film stock’s natural grain, but much of the image is considerably sharper and even colourful, although some occasional speckles and other visual debris are apparent, which, to be fair, don’t distract at all.  In a nice added gesture, Severin have not only included the expected English dubbing track, but also Italian and French audio options - with optional English SDH subtitles - as well.  All three audio tracks are in uncompressed LPCM 2.0 Mono, but most viewers will undoubtedly stick with the English one, which features such familiar-to-the-ears voice-acting talent as John Gayford, who reads Fr. Valerio’s lines in the vernacular.
  
In terms of extras, the main highlight is an audio commentary with Claudio Fragasso, moderated by Freak-O-Rama’s Federico Caddeo.  Very thorough and quite the storyteller, Fragasso discusses the various locations, which utilized the derelict convent of Santa Priscilla in Rome and some interiors at De Paolis studios, as well as the famous Cimitero di Fontanelle in Naples for the opening shots; plus the challenges of shooting two films at once within a tight 5-week schedule (“Bruno was quite absorbed in the other movie”), which allowed him to (quote) “impose” his own ideas onto the film; and he also relates how—not surprisingly, due to its more sensationalistic / exploitational elements, despite its dearth of either nudity or sexual content—the present film went on to become the more successful, better-distributed, and hence most widely-seen of the two pictures.  Other topics discussed in Severin’s commentary track by Fragasso include the (quote) “very collaborative” relationship he had with Bruno Mattei; as well as some of the other personnel involved with the production, including editor Liliana Serra, who was Mattei’s wife.  It’s an excellent, fast-paced commentary, filled with plenty of interesting facts, anecdotes and trivia related to the production, and is well-worth the listen.

Other extras include Sister Franca (13m12s), an archival on-camera interview with the late Franca Stoppi (who died in 2011), wherein the actress - who is arguably best-known for co-starring in D’Amato’s necrophilic gross-out BEYOND THE DARKNESS (a.k.a. BURIED ALIVE, 1979) - covers many of the same topics, and Stoppi also relates how she worked on both THE OTHER HELL and THE TRUE STORY OF THE NUN OF MONZA during the day whilst juggling theatre work at night.  She also discusses her bout with stage fright, plus her then-current interests as an animal rights advocate/activist.   In To Hell and Back (11m20s), which is a reedited piece combining archival interviews (from the Shriek Show DVD) with Bruno Mattei and Carlo De Mejo, they discuss a potentially different location used for the convent (i.e., the Palazzo Borghese on Via di Novella); supporting actress Montenero, who was married to director Massimo Pirri; and how Mattei’s friendship with Cinevox’s Carlo Bixio allowed him to acquire the Goblin music tracks heard in the film.  The original theatrical trailer finishes off the extras, and, once again, Severin have also included reversible cover art, which features both the long-defunct Interlight video label’s U.K. VHS art as well as Vestron’s U.S. vid art. All this and a promotional cover-blurb quoted from Monster! zine / Unpopped’s own Steve Fenton(e)’s book AntiCristo: The Bible of Nasty Nun Sinema & Culture (FAB Press, 2000) too, yet! Hell, he even kicked-off his long-out-of-print tome with a suitably lurid dialogue passage taken from the very film under review, revealing just how much the film epitomizes nunsploitation cinema as a whole.

Whatever one’s personal views regarding this decidedly dubious subgenre, THE OTHER HELL remains one of its more outrageously entertaining and enjoyable efforts, so go ahead and corrupt your soul with Severin’s new Blu-ray. It definitely delivers the sinful goods! Order it from Severin or DiabolikDVD.

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