Written by: Bruno Mattei & Claudio Fragasso
Directed by: Bruno Mattei
Starring: Franca Stoppi, Carlo De Mejo, and Francesca Carmeno
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
“The genitals are the door to evil! The vagina, the uterus, the womb; the labyrinth that leads to hell; the devil's tools!"
During the course of a long, storied career, Bruno Mattei forged an infamous reputation as Italy’s most shameless schlock auteur whose work either ripped off or downright plagiarized other movies. Nearly all of his best-known films stand in the shadow of their more famous predecessors: Hell of the Living Dead microwaves Dawn of the Dead, Zombie, and their various imitators together, while Rats tosses Mad Max, Willard, and Planet of the Apes into a blender stuck on its highest speed. Titles like Shocking Dark (aka Terminator 2) and Cruel Jaws hardly need any further explanation. But what does it look like when Mattei produces something that’s kind of original, at least by his standards? The Other Hell provides that answer. Sure, it’s technically riding the nunsploitation wave that began with The Devils, and it’s sort of half-ass riffing on Suspiria and Inferno, but it doesn’t have the same sense of déjà vu as a lot of Mattei’s other work.
It does, however, reflect the devil-may-care approach that guided his career, though, because The Other Hell absolutely feels like it was made up as Mattei and frequent collaborator Claudio Fragasso totally made it up as they went along in a quest to answer the really big questions that plague our existence, like “why can’t you make a movie with homicidal nuns, mad science, witches, and zombies if you really want to?” Most people might say that’s biting off more than one can chew, but not this deranged duo, who often figured you might as well stuff as many movies as possible into one production.
Trouble brews at a remote Italian convent when the embalming process for one its departed nuns goes haywire. Presiding Sister Assunta (Paola Montenero) rants over the dead woman’s body, insisting that the vagina is a doorway to evil before mutilating the corpse and fondling its innards. Suddenly, a cauldron erupts, spewing forth an almost mystical fog that compels Assunta to brutally stab her assistant to death. Disturbed by the violent outburst, the convent’s Mother Superior Vincenza (Franca Stoppi) calls in investigators from the Vatican to uncover the source of the horror. The more grounded—and younger—of the duo (Carlo de Mejo) dismisses the supernatural implications, suggesting that this is just the work of an unhinged mind; however, his superior insists that Satan is not only real but also working his unholy black magic on this convent.
The truth lands somewhere between these two explanations, as the two priests uncover a decades-long pattern of mayhem haunting the convent. It’s a genuinely compelling mystery, helmed with unusual restraint by Mattei, who doesn’t resort to his typical blunt force trauma approach. Sure, there’s that shocking opener, and The Other Hell eventually unleashes the kitchen sink, but this one is much more grounded than most of his efforts. Where Mattei’s more outrageous work goes full throttle, with the gear stick broken off in fifth gear, The Other Hell more patiently simmers to a boil. This might be the closest any of Mattei’s genre movies come to being considered low-key: it’s practically a 16mm pot-boiler that gradually builds to an outrageous climax that feels more like what you’d expect from this filmmaking duo. (Read: a teenager boiled flesh dangling from her face declares a forbidden love for one of the priests.)
But in the meantime, The Other Hell tries to replicate the free-floating nightmare logic of Argento’s Three Mothers films. It’s doing so with much fewer resources, though, so the whole thing feels like an elaborate haunted house attraction designed by Bruno Mattei. And I don’t know about you, but I would definitely go to a haunted house designed by Bruno Mattei. The convent here becomes a kaleidoscopic descent into candy-colored catacombs, where cauldrons bubble and dime store devil eyes lurk in the shadows. Mannequins inexplicably hang from the ceiling as a faceless nun skulks about the convent, presumably holding the key to unlocking the mystery. Animals on the property go wild, attacking the weirdo groundskeeper whose name might as well be Red Herring. Witchcraft floats in the air, apparently capable of transforming a tape recorder into a Super-8 camera that can peer through time and space. Coffins are stuffed with undead bodies just waiting to lurch forth with the energy of a haunt employee hiding behind a door.
None of this makes much narrative sense, nor should you expect it to. Mattei and Fragrasso are content to sweep it all under the all-encompassing rug of witchcraft and devilry. When in doubt, always insist that the devil you do it because Old Scratch is capable of anything, including conceiving a demon child that’s responsible for the convent’s horrors. The Other Hell takes quite a detour during its climax, at which point it becomes “Carrie and a convent,” as Fragasso himself put it. Such a description might lead you to believe that Mattei is up to his old tricks here, but, believe me, this actually undersells the gonzo twists and turns that help the film roar to life with full body immolations and hysterical nuns. A compilation of recycled Goblin cues score it all, providing the final piece of that Italian horror je-ne-sais-quois puzzle.
Underpinning the madness is the suggestion that religious piety is a stultifying force whose tendency to repress horrors only succeeds in eventually unleashing them. Nunsploitation movies thrive on blurring the lines between the sacred and the profane, with the best of them doing so to highlight the inherent folly and hypocrisy of organized religion. The Other Hell only makes it about halfway there because it’s more or less content to just exploit the blasphemy of unholy nuns; however, that sort of superficial, rough draft thoughtfulness typical of exploitation movies lurks, if ever so faintly.
Most of Mattei’s movies are memorable, but none in exactly the same way. Some are galling in the way they stitch together popular movies, while others simply thrive on sheer carnage and outrageous dialogue. And then there’s The Other Hell, a genuinely atmospheric, strikingly-shot work boasting a fantastic performance from Stoppi as the beleaguered Mother Superior with a secret. Her presence looms over the entire production, her eyes hinting at both madness and regret as she’s forced to confront her own complicity in the horrors. So many Mattei movies treat their characters as mere ciphers greasing the wheels of the mayhem; this one actually has a compelling arc for an unlikely protagonist that helps to cement The Other Hell as one of Mattei’s best movies. And that’s not damning with faint praise, either; in fact, I’ll go one step further and say that The Other Hell is most certainly one of the best movies ever made where a baby is tossed in a pot of scalding water.
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