Review: School of The Holy Beast (1974) DVD Release from Cult Epics (2010)

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Our recent review of The Witch (2016), touched on how it is an unconventional horror film in the realm of Rosemary’s Baby, Carrie & Suspiria; films where social constructs force the female protagonist out towards the fringe & ultimately towards finding empowerment in a dark place. In keeping with this theme, this week, we will look at the 1974 genre bending pinky violence/nunsploitation/horror/drama School of the Holy Beast. Produced by Godzilla/kaiju masters Toei, School of the Holy Beast was a first for Toei; an ‘erotic-grotesque’/’Nikkatsu Roman porno’ as they dubbed the genre. Ultimately, School of the Holy Beast transcends this simple label due to beautiful cinematography and direction by director Norifuki Suzuki & social commentary on the psychological costs of war, religious hypocrisy by the clergy, and what role faith plays in the development of an individual.

Actress Yumi Takigawa plays Maya, our protagonist. The film starts off with Maya out in Tokyo experiencing a day at the movies and a day date with her lover before giving herself over to joining the Convent of St. Clorre. As the film unfolds, we find that Maya joins the convent to find out what happened to her mother, a devout nun who died when Maya was born and left Maya with only a crucifix from the convent as a key to her identity. Maya joins to find out what happened to her mother and that macguffin allows the viewer into the world of the nunnery as a voyeur; we learn about the sordid doings at St. Clorre as Maya does and we quickly learn the convent is not the “mansion for women who long for eternal virginity” that the abbess proclaims it to be.

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Here is where the film clearly enters its nunsploitation phase as Maya learns about the pecking order of the convent, from choir nuns to assistant nuns and the “persecution room” that those who cause strife are punished. In many ways, these scenes of Maya learning the ropes of her new existence and the different pecking orders amongst the nuns are reminiscent to Susie Banyon learning the ropes of the ballet school years later in Dario Argento’s 1977 Suspiria. We have scenes here in the nunsploitation frame where one nun whips herself nude because she’s an ascetic nun. As Maya joins she is confirmed in a nude neo-baptism as a bride of Christ before being presented with her habit. 2 nuns are forced to whip each other topless in the persecution room in view of the body of nuns after getting into the pantry and being discovered. Nuns are forced to comply to a strip search for a missing sum of money. These scenes are designed to give the viewer plenty of young female flesh to oogle but they also introduce the larger commentary on hypocrisy behind closed institutional doors & rebellion as a sign of empowerment and individuality that inform the latter half of the film.

Interestingly, the film explores the role of faith in an individual’s life and the effects of war through the role of the film’s villain; Priest Kakinuma, (played by Fumio Watanabe) a Catholic Father in charge of the abbey. Initially depicted as an ascetic monk type figure despite his Rasputin-ish appearance. He seemingly helps a nun who is stealing on behalf of her family. However, this veneer of piety and empathy is soon broken by his actions. He is revealed as a despotic figure who preys on weak nuns and rapes them due to his loss of faith in God. A true deity would save a pious nun from someone as evil as him. He later confides that he believes if there was a God that he wouldn’t have allowed for the Holocaust to have occurred or for the devastation of the nuclear attack at Nagasaki to have befallen the people of Japan. The director Suzuki intersperses this reveal with actual still photographs and footage of the devastation of Nagasaki on the survivors and dead. This narrative device lends some much needed nuance to the film as it makes you somewhat empathize with this evil figure and adds some realistic motivation to what could easily be a “women in prison” film in disguise.

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And there are a lot of “women in prison” film in disguise tropes in this film. From a break-in to free one of the nuns, to the strict discipline on the nuns/inmates, the vice abbess standing in for the warden and the persecution room standing in for the hole. The film contains multiple torture scenes, but two stick for their elaborate nature. One where a nun is stripped and bound by thorns then whipped by rose bouquets in slow motion wielded by the other nuns. This is a visually stunning set-piece and the cinematography really makes it memorable and iconic.

The second set-piece of torture that leaves an impression is when an assistant to the priest named Nataly Green (played by Ryouko Ima) is introduced. Green is convinced that the abbey is corrupt and under the influece of witches who need to be ratted out. She forces a nun who claims she has been raped and impregnated to drink salwater and then hung over an effigy of Christ. If she is trult innocent, her urine won’t despoil the figure. The prolonged torture and dark nature of this area of them film really bring to mind the persecution of witches in films like Argento’s Suspiria. A hanging scene later in the film even has stained glass and lurid red which bring to mind Suspiria’s most memorable scene and the bright lurid colors of the Giallo genre where Argento got his start. The film’s finale provides a dark twist on revenge as well, reminiscent for viewers of Oldboy
and perhaps an influence on it.

Ultimately, School of the Holy Beast transcends the mere nunsploitation/pinky violence genre to become something much more a la 1977’s Hausu – a crazy genre flick that transcends genres and needs to be seen to be believed.

DVD Extras

– An interview with actress Yumi Takigawa recounting her experience on the film years later. Interesting tidbits include that she was essentially tricked by her agent into appearing in the film. A very fun anecdote.

– Original trailer.

– An interview with a Japanese film critic Risaku Kiridoushi. Fun stories here are the development of porn in Japan and how Toei were innovators in Japan in creating porn films as we know them in the west and they created the “erotic-grotesque” and “Nikkatsu Roman Porno” subgenres. Interesting as well because the film clips in this section are still subtitled but the audio is clearly French and not Japanese.

Transfer

– Transfer is very clean. It is presented in 2:35:1 format – the opening has some hair and heavy grain from the print used, but the colors are very vibrant and not faded and the rest of the film is crystal clear with good film grain.

Overall, check out this release from Cult Epics, a great underground gem well worth checking out and available on the THE NUNSPLOITATION CONVENT COLLECTION as well as a single release here as well http://www.cultepics.com/product-detail/school-of-the-holy-beast

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