Tuesday, October 26, 2010

In short: The Other Hell (1981)

Original title: L'altro Inferno

Something is not right in a small Italian nunnery. The embalming specialist of the cloister (yes, every religious institution needs one, didn't you know?) has gone corpse-crotch-mutilatingly mad, a papercraft head with blinking red light bulb eyes pops up now and then, and nuns die in violent ways. Vincenza (Franca Stoppi), the mother superior of the place, tries to sell the deaths and the madness as accidents to the church hierarchy, but this isn't child abuse, so the Church sends the experienced Father Inardo (Andrea Aureli) to investigate.

Inardo witnesses more signs of highly unnatural influences in the cloister in form of a possibly possessed nun with stigmata, strange noises and the smell of secrets all around. For some reason, his bosses very suddenly decide to replace Inardo with the younger, much more sceptical of the supernatural Father Valerio (Carlo De Mejo).

The young sceptic soon learns that there are even stranger things afoot in the cloister than Inardo has experienced. What has all this to do with the masked nun living in the attic, in a room full of naked dolls hanging from the ceiling? The answer lies - as it always does - in a terrible secret in the cloister's past.

The Other Hell is one of the earliest cooperations between Bruno Mattei and Claudio Fragasso, but it already is the expected mix of insane random stuff (hello camera that films the past!), hilariously bad special effects (hello doll-who-stands-in-for-a-baby and fake dogs!), utter tastelessness (hello groin-stabbing one, two and three!), hysterical acting (hello close-ups of sweaty nun faces and loud screeching!), recycled Goblin tracks (hello, soundtrack of Buoi Omega!) and a preposterously earnest subtext that doesn't survive contact with the rest of the film.

Said subtext is especially interesting this time around, as Mattei and Fragrasso seem to want to say something against the repression of female sexuality - unless they are trying to blame everything bad on female sexuality (the uterus is "the labyrinth that leads to hell", it seems). There's a basis for both interpretations in the film, but our heroic directors/writers are a bit too occupied with ripping off Carrie, The Exorcist and Rosemary's Baby to give anything but mixed messages about anything.

It comes as a bit of a surprise what the film doesn't include, though, namely the scenes of female nudity - and whippings, oh wait, let's make that nude whippings - any exploitation film taking place in a cloister is by law required to have. Making a film that's thematically all about sexuality (and the devil) that then doesn't include any on-screen sex seems at once a bit perverse and rather clever; the latter isn't a concept I usually use in connection with these two intrepid purveyors of smut. One could nearly come to the conclusion that Mattei and Fragasso at this early point in their partnership still had artistic ambitions. These ambitions also show in a handful of surprisingly well-staged scenes, whose basic ideas might be cribbed from Bava and Argento, but that still can't help and pull The Other Hell more into the direction of serious dream-like horror than I would have expected from these two.

Don't worry, though, The Other Hell is still as immensely entertaining as most of the films Mattei and Fragasso are responsible for; it's just a bit more like an actual movie and less like, well, whatever Robowar is supposed to be.


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