Expanded from the liner notes to the Shriek Show DVD, written by your humble Braineater, Will Laughlin.
Sister Assunta is busy preparing the body of a nun who died during an abortion. The other nun has brought her the fetus, pickled in a jar. The embalmer, who appears to be a few Commandments short of a full Decalogue, informs her terrified Sister in Christ that the body of a nun who has died in sin must be purified before burial. She demonstrates by picking up a knife and hacking out the corpse's private parts. Then she fondles the bloody bits, crooning that they are the gateway to the Other Hell, the Devil's labyrinth of desire.
"To know Life, Sister Otto..."
Without warning or explanation, the fire under the lab cauldron flares up, and Sister Assunta goes into convulsions. When her poor bewildered companion tries to help her, Sister Assunta stabs her over and over again; her convulsions turn to shivers of ecstasy as she mutilates the girl's body...
And so it begins -- not just the movie, but the partnership of two of Italian exploitation cinema's most notorious figures: director Bruno Mattei and writer/director/co-conspirator Claudio Fragasso. The movie announced their partnership with sudden violence, like a knife to the groin of mainstream cinema. Movies like Hell of the Living Dead
, Violence in Women's Prison
and Blade Violent
would follow shortly, and twist the blade in the wound.
The film gives a good idea of what to expect from their later collaborations. Its story is a barely coherent mix of ideas from other popular movies, including The Exorcist
, The Devils
, The Omen
, and Carrie
, with a dash of Rosemary for extra flavor. The soundtrack, by the Italian rock group Goblin, has also been "borrowed" from another movie: Joe D'Amato's Beyond the Darkness
, which was released the year before.
The film also illustrates a technique that Mattei would use frequently over the next few years. Thanks to Fragasso's enthusiastic assistance, Mattei found he could economize by shooting two similar movies back to back, using many of the same sets, costumes and people. While The Other Hell
was shooting downstairs, another crew was upstairs filming The True Story of the Nuns of Monza
, a more traditional nunsploitation movie. Since gruesome horror was more to Fragasso's taste than Mattei's, the older man seems to have turned over a great deal of creative control on The Other Hell
to the younger. Anyone familiar with Fragasso's later work -- Zombi 4
, for example, or Troll II
-- will be able to recognize his bloody fingerprints all over The Other Hell
. In recent years, Fragasso has stepped forward to try to claim a larger share of the credit for some of the duo's most over-the-top creations, and based on the sheer loopiness of the films in question, he may well be entitled to that recognition.
Especially since no one in their right mind would want
OK, I know I've been particularly harsh in my judgment of Fragasso and Mattei, especially in regard to this movie
. I have several good reasons, the most obvious being that The Other Hell
is a truly terrible film in most respects. Next, I will always have a special (if ambiguous) place in my heart and in my spleen for the flick, since it was one of the original sources of inspiration for the Braineater web site. In fact, it was one of the reasons I decided to delve deeply into the questionable world of Italian horror.
I can remember very clearly getting drunk and watching the film for the first time, on a grainy print from the Canadian video company "Lettuce Entertain You". Yes -- and the quality of the print was about equal to the quality of the pun... a fact which made the quality of the film, if indeed it had any, very difficult to judge. I was so appalled by the tastelessness of the film that it took me a week to get the bad feeling out of my mind. After that experience, I was determined to find out how such a dreadful film could be made, and so I began to investigate even further off the beaten track than I had dared to go before.
And now, years later, I am very familiar with some of the worst horror films imaginable. I've also run across some real treasures buried amid the dross, and all because I needed to find some sort of context in which to place The Other Hell
. But now, having come so far and -- gulp -- endured so much cinematic torture (at no little expense, and usually on grainy, barely watchable video dubs), I can walk into my local Blockbuster and rent movies like Fragasso's Zombi 4
-- a movie so terrible it makes The Other Hell
look like Cries and Whispers
by comparison -- in a pristine, wide-screen DVD. That's right: I have come full circle. I have become mainstream.
I have also learned that as these types of movie go, The Other Hell
is actually one of the better ones.
One of the first things you have to bear in mind when you approach The Other Hell
is the year it was released: 1980. Although Bruno Mattei had been involved in professional film for many years, Claudio Fragasso was just getting his start. You get the feeling as you watch the film that Mattei had enough technical knowledge to know how to do things right... while Fragasso hadn't yet learned enough to do things too badly wrong.
I admit I have no way of backing up this broad and prejudicial assertion, but the movie does seem to be the work of two different people. Compare some of the "fast action scenes" which Fragasso claims credit for (which are often either badly lit or goofily framed) with other scenes: for instance, the sequence of the argument between Mother Superior Vincenza and Boris, the gardener: the camera pulls back slowly through a window, distancing us from the argument even as it becomes more violent... and gradually, we see revealed in the glass the dim reflection of a woman in a veil. The latter shot shows a superb sense of lighting, framing and pace which is missing from most of the rest of the film.
1980 was not only significant for the pair in terms of their personal development, but also for the conditions in which they worked. At the time, it was still conceivable that a small studio could imitate a major Hollywood success and not come off looking stupid. Carrie
or Rosemary's Baby
could still inspire a superficial knockoff. It's true, Italian productions were already embarrassing themselves trying to imitate Star Wars
without a budget, but the days when the multimillion-dollar special effects blockbuster would become the rule rather than the exception in Hollywood were just beginning.
Reasonably successful rip-offs were not only possible, they were popular. Therefore, although Italian imitations were relatively cheap to produce, they still had some
sort of meagre budget alllocated to them. However, as the decade wore on, movies like Terminator 2
upped the ante on audience expectations. Not only did it become less and less feasible to make a convincing copy, the budgets for the films (ironically) shrank even further. In their later movies, Mattei and Fragasso would try to rip off much more expensive films, like The Terminator
, and Robocop
. They had no chance of succeeding, though one would be hard-pressed to fail more spectacularly than they did in movies like Shocking Dark
Yet here they were, in a fresh and sympathetic collaboration, in optimistic times for the horror genre, with new possibilities stretching out before them. And I have to admit, once you've seen some of the other movies they made together (and that's easier to do these days, thanks to DVD companies such as Shriek Show and Anchor Bay), you may come to the same conclusion I did: that their first collaboration is probably the most intelligent film either of them ever made. Even if you're unwilling to grant this, you must admit that there are signs that Mattei and Fragasso were trying to make a better film.
After the events of the bloody prologue, the Church sends an elderly official to investigate. Father Inardo is greeted with suspicion by the nuns, particularly the enigmatic Mother Superior, Mother Vincenza. The Reverend Mother is played by Franca Stoppi, fresh from her triumph in Beyond the Darkness
... the soundtrack isn't all they stole from D'Amato's gory classic.
Father Inardo is a very tradtional priest, and the things he comes to experience in the convent leave him profoundly shaken. On his first arrival, a young nun starts babbling to him that the Devil is living in the convent, and that all the nuns must worship him. Later, this nun goes into convulsions after the Father gives her Holy Communion: she runs off vomiting blood, as though the Host had burned her. Sequestered, the nun develops stigmata, and collapses, dead, in a bloody heap. Strange sounds seem to come from the convent attic at night. The lights in Father Inardo's room explode, after which his Bible flies open to the passage of Jesus and the man possessed of demons... and catches fire.
The frightened priest makes his report back to his Superiors. However, in this rational age, the Church doesn't want to hear stories of ghosts and demonic possession. So Father Inardo is replaced by the young Father Valerio (played by genre stalwart Carlo de Mejo), a priest who is also a trained psychologist.Unlike Father Inardo, Father Valerio believes that those phenomena referred to as possession and witchcraft in less enlightened eras can all be explained by modern scientific theory. He intends to prove that the terrible things that are happening at the convent are all perfectly explicable.
So Father Valerio leaves the safe, comfortable, male
world he is used to, and enters the unfamiliar, secretive, exclusively female
world of the convent. He arrives to find Mother Vincenza holding a Savonarola-esque bonfire, burning the nuns' few worldly possession to rid the place of evil. Fingerprints, too, muses Father Valerio.
There follows a battle of wills between the Mother Superior and the priest-detective. The conflict between the logical, rational Father Valerio and Mother Vincenza's occult hysteria seems to be Fragasso's metaphor for the struggle between the sexes. Even the convent itself, with its tormented prisoner in the attic and the Devil down below, becomes a metaphor for the human body in the grip of lust. It's pretty crude symbolism, but it's more than we'd expect from cheap nunsploitation.
And, as might be expected, the battle between the Mother and the Father hinges on a child.
No, there's no sex in The Other Hell...
One of the things that confounds people about The Other Hell
is that it seems to have no sex in it -- an odd thing for a nunsploitation horror flick. Critics who complained about the film's lack of sex were missing the point: it's all
about sex - not the pleasurable bits that we like to watch, but the guilt, shame, and tragic consequences that so often follow. In fact, that's the meaning of the movie's title: the Other Hell is, as we've heard earlier, the misery of sexual entanglements gone bad. The consequences are even worse in a world that thinks it has conquered the snares of desire, such as this convent.
In the end, the film provides both a rational and a demoniac explanation for the horrible goings-on, as though suggesting the conflict between the sexes can never be resolved. The "explanation" actually doesn't explain anything at all: we're left understanding more or less what happened, but totally at a loss to understand why
. Many, many loose threads are left at the end of the film, but -- here's the kicker -- one or two of the loose threads were left that way intentionally.
Mattei and Fragasso even try to give the movie some structural subtlety: they usher in the climax by repeating a gesture from the movie's prologue. Unfortunately, that gesture is a knife to the groin. Would anyone else but Bruno Mattei and Claudio Fragasso attempt subtlety through crotch mutilation?
Here we have to admit that in spite of their very best efforts, Mattei and Fragasso ultimately came up with a Very Bad Movie. I've tried to give an indication of the film's surprising strengths, but there's no denying that its strengths are far outweighed by its problems. The viewer will have little trouble finding them without my assistance... but here are a few major failings to consider:
First of all, there's the glowing-eyed thing in the cellar. We never find out what this thing really is, or what its relationship is to the principal characters. Is it the Devil? Is it responsible for impregnating a certain young nun, and endowing the resulting child with supernatural powers (all indications are that it was the gardener who knocked up the nun, and as for the supernatural stuff? Blame that on Stephen King and Brian dePalma: the whole last section of the film is a blatant and shrill plagiarism of Carrie
)? What we do
know is that it's made of paper-maché, and that its eyes are ordinary light-bulbs on a dimmer switch. We also know it likes to play knock-knock jokes: when the ever-vigilant Father Inardo sneaks back to the convent for a little secret exorcism, he and the creature have the following little exchange:
DEVIL: (sound corresponding to "knock-knock")
INARDO: Who's there?
DEVIL: The Devil!!!
(Father Inardo bursts into flames)
Evidently the Devil can't remember the punch line. He's good at practical jokes, though, since he leaves the Priest's charred head in the sanctuary.
And then, we have the movie's other few special effects. The film's "monster" turns out to have a crusty chin. Hey, it's a step better than a monster with huge kneecaps, but it's still pretty lame, especially as executed here. Worst (or Best) of all is the obvious plastic doll that stands in for a real baby -- in a close-up, no less -- at the end of the film...
This is a real baby...
... and this is embarrassing.
There's also some gratuitous animal violence in the movie that I invariably fast-forward through. Slightly more forgiveable is the film's lack of legitimate scares. There are some genuinely eerie moments, it's true; such as Father Valerio's discovery of a doll hanging by a noose in a dark corridor. But the best the movie can do for a scare is to have somebody pop out of a door or a coffin, a trick which might work once if it was properly set up, but which fails completely when it's used three times, with build-up so clear you know exactly what's going to happen.
Worst of all is the fact that the film falls apart completely once the finale gets going. It's as though you've stepped into a totally different movie (Carrie
, in fact), but one that bears all the hallmarks of having been directed by Claudio Fragasso alone: total lapse in the pacing, hackneyed visual effects, and the tendency to, ahem, overstate.
In fact, the film itself seems to get tired of the interminable ending. In the middle of the unnecessary epilogue, just before the "it's-over-but-it's-not-really-over" ending, my video print superimposes the words THE END over the action long before everything is finished... as though wishing would make it so.
So, at the end of my reappraisal of The Other Hell
, I seem to have a little more respect for it than I have in the past. If anything, though, my newfound appreciation for the movie has made me more annoyed than ever at Mattei and Fragasso. Guys? What the hell went wrong, here and in the future? You could have done so much better, even with the limitations you faced. Look at what you almost did, if you hadn't... if you...
Oh, but who am I kidding? There are hundreds of vaguely acceptable horror films, but there are only a handful of travesties like the Mattei/Fragasso films. In a way, the good parts of The Other Hell
really only serve to deepen the impact of the film's miscalculations. The vast distance between what they were trying to achieve, and what they ended up with, makes The Other Hell
an entertaining, endearingly awful horror film. Thanks are due to Shriek Show Video
for rescuing the film from obscurity and re-releasing it on video and DVD.