Color, 1974, 91m.
Directed by Norifumi Suzuki
Starring Yumi Takigawa, Emiko Yamauchi, Yayoi Watanabe
Cult Epics (US R1 NTSC), Studio Canal (France R2 PAL) / WS (2.35:1) (16:9)

Determined to outdo the Europeans at their own game, Japanese cinema entered the nunsploitation market of the mid-1970s with one of the subgenre’s most delirious entries, School of the Holy Beast (Seijû gakuen). Though the country’s taboo on frontal nudity ensured the film couldn’t compete with the likes of Ken Russell and Jess Franco in terms of sexy nun exposure, genre-hopping director Norifumi Suzuki resourcefully upped the ante by intermingling blasphemy and perversion with gorgeous arthouse aesthetics, resulting in a warped and poetic slice of exploitation not easily bleached from the viewer’s brain.

The story begins with young novice Maya (Graveyard of Honor’s Takigawa) celebrating her last day on the town before taking the vows at a Catholic convent, where the Mother Superior has set up a brutal caste system punishing inaugurates who couldn’t contribute enough money upon arrival. The downtrodden few become folly for the holy sisters’ recreational activities, which include beatings, bondage, a vat of acid under the floor, and bloody whippings with roses. Meanwhile Maya – whose mother was a nun at the same abbey years before – tries to piece together her own sordid family history, whose dark answer lies somewhere within the walls of this decadent house of Christ.

Most Western nunsploitation films exist primarily to showcase nymphomaniacal nuns running amuck and indulging in lesbian gropes behind cloistered walls, and while School of the Holy Beast certainly indulges in these taboo treats to a certain extent, most of its shock value lies in the casual blasphemy of its dialogue and tortures. Catholic-based countries are usually careful to tiptoe around anything that directly insults the Bible, but coming from a decidedly non-Christian country, this particular take has no qualms about having its sympathetic heroine lashing out at not only the sadistic Mother Superior and her lackey priest cohort but against every tenet of the Good Book itself. From a dialogue standpoint alone, this carries more of a transgressive punch than a dozen similar Joe D’Amato films. Of course, the proceedings are so over the top it would take a particularly sensitive viewer to be genuinely offended; by the time the snowy Christmas Eve finale rolls around - in which poisoning and a bell tower play a key role – all but the staunchest cult fans will surely be doubting their sanity.

Completely unknown for years following its release, School of the Holy Beast finally amassed a cult following during the Japanese exploitation boom on the revival circuit in early 2000 along with the likes of the Female Convict Scorpion series. However, apart from a non-English DVD release in France, most viewers had to content themselves with theatrical screenings for a few years afterwards. Easily worth the wait, Cult Epics’ DVD edition offers a beautiful scope transfer (ignore the erroneous 1.85:1 aspect ratio on the box) with optional yellow subtitles. Colors are gorgeous throughout, and the framing looks accurate. Extras include the crowd-pleasing theatrical trailer and, more substantially, two video interviews. First up is Takigawa, who cheerfully discusses the film and her career for a nice and breezy 17 minutes. Then Japanese cinema critic Risaku Kiridoushi offers some background information (in lieu of liner notes) about the director and the period in which the film was created, though no amount of verbal context can possibly prepare anyone for sitting down to watch the main feature itself. Also available in the US as a Cult Epics double feature of nunsploitation classics along with Walerian Borowczk's Behind Convent Walls.

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