Nunsploitation was one of the many wild subgenres to emerge from 1970s B-cinema, films featuring nuns getting into various adventures with sexy and/or violent results. I will readily admit that going into this review, I knew nunsploitation more as a concept and “thing that existed” rather than having any first-hand knowledge, but as a graduate of the Catholic educational system, I can understand the appeal of mixing the sacred and the profane. Clearly, so does James Dean, the director and co-writer (along with Louis Otero) of Fountaine and the Vengeful Nun Who Wouldn’t Die, a new nunsploitation flick in the classic grindhouse tradition created and filmed by an all-local cast and crew right here in St. Louis.
The sacred and the profane mix right from the opening scene, in which a priest lectures a trio of nuns about the lack of tithes before splitting one, Sister Alice (Zera Lynd), off from the crowd and raping her right there on the altar. The rapist in question is Father Leo Fountaine (Keith Nussbaum), who has been running a drug cartel selling a mysterious new drug called “chalk” from his fortress-like church. Next, we meet the other half of our title pair, Sister Mary (Mallory Stern), the “maniac nun” who has been committed to an asylum after ripping her own eyeball out in response to the chalk overdose of her sister. Her and fellow nun Lee (Jaclyn Tripp) fend off another would-be rapist orderly in brutal fashion and break free of the asylum, only for Lee to later go missing. Flash forward and we find Sister Mary under the protection of another church, where she and Sam (Ron Clower) receive martial arts training under the unforgiving Master (Brian Davis) in the hopes of one day taking down Fountaine, finding the missing Lee, and taking revenge for the death of Mary’s sister.
B-movie dialogue can tend to be a little on-the-nose, so it’s surprising how cryptic Fountaine is at times. The convent Sister Mary is in, for example, has a dojo and dedicated martial arts training—the how and why of that is sort of implied but never really explained. Some of the cryptic elements are mysteries that are eventually revealed and some are just bizarre things you have to accept and roll with. I’ll be honest, there were times in this movie when I lost track of the plot and what characters’ motivations were. But I didn’t really come for the plot, I came to watch Mary kick ass, and man, does she take care of that. Mallory Stern is a blast to watch as Mary, able to easily slide from sarcastic to stoic badass to sweet (in a cute scene where she talks to a little girl in church). Her role as a “maniac nun” is preposterous, but she really gives it her all—there’s a heavy scene where she, boiling with rage, says “I haven’t prayed in over a year. I’ve never felt more far from God. I’m a monster in a fucking costume,” and it lands a surprisingly emotional gut punch. Not all of the other actors keep up with Stern, but there are a few standouts. It’s a shame the character of Lee goes missing early on because Tripp lights up the screen when she shows up, and her high energy character bounces well off of Mary. Davis’ Master feels like he stepped right out of a martial arts movie, which makes sense as he’s an actual martial arts teacher—and handled the film’s impressively brutal fight choreography.
The fight choreography isn’t the only place Fountaine impresses from a craft perspective. First, it’s a flat-out great looking movie: from the opening drone shots encircling Fountaine’s church to the numerous lingering single-shot takes to a few particularly sharp compositions using reflective surfaces to get into Mary’s demented head, Dean and director of photography Andrew Kleewein take care to frame their shots for maximum impact. Given the blonde, sword-wielding heroine, it’s perhaps unsurprising that there’s a heavy Tarantino influence to the film’s look, right down to the multiple shots of women’s bare feet, but rather than being a slavish imitation, Dean follows Tarantino’s example by blending a range of movie styles—martial arts, grindhouse revenge flick, horror—into something uniquely his own. Alice Collins’ score also amplifies the action, from well-placed bits of heavy metal guitar to synth pieces that split the sonic difference between John Carpenter and ‘80s kung-fu movies.
I’m not trying to oversell it: this is, after all, a movie where a priest rips a page out of a Bible and uses it to snort drugs off a stripper’s ass. High art, this ain’t. But for what it is, an inherently silly movie about a nun with a samurai sword murdering drug dealers and nuns and even a few Nazis, Dean and company really went all out. It’s violent and gory and funny and gross and over-the-top and carefully put together to accomplish all that on a shoestring budget. It’s a Grand Guignol epic of blood and guts and swords and hammers and chainsaws with rosaries dangling from them starring a nun in an eyepatch and fishnets, and if that sounds up your alley, Fountaine and the Vengeful Nun Who Wouldn’t Die won’t disappoint. | Jason Green