Running time: 90 mins
Director: Joseph Guzman
Starring: Asun Ortega, David Castro, Aycil Yeltan, Xango Henry
Genre: Action, Exploitation, Thriller
Director Joseph Guzman returned for his sophomore offering hot on the heels of Run! Bitch Run! with a cocktail of exploitation subgenres (nunsploitation and bikerploitation). The Nunsploitation, like Naziploitation, wears the uncomfortable crown of being one of the more difficult exploitation realms to defend against critics as anyone who has ever tried to protect the honour of Walerian Borowczyk or Bruno Mattei will know all too well. The bikerploitation has offerings that can be claimed which are highly acclaimed, Easy Rider and Hell’s Angels for instance, but for the most part has been littered with films that are as equally acquired tastes as Behind Convent Walls and Killer Nun but for completely different reasons. It’s worth pointing out before we go too much further that I’m a fan of both subgenres, though admittedly more favourably lending towards the biker flicks like Werewolves on Wheels, Motorpsycho and Roger Corman’s Naked Angels.
It’s no surprise that the child of a Nunsploitation and Bikerploitation is going to be extremely polarising and with a title like Nude Nuns with Big Guns is really only going to attract the more salty of cinematic audiences.
Aboard a reclaimed school bus in what is being billed as Northern Mexico three nuns and two priests are stopped in the middle of nowhere by members of the Los Muertos Motorcycle Club. What we presume to be a hijacking is actually a drop off as the local church has been indoctrinated into the gangs primary business (the manufacturing and distribution of heroin). When the delivery is a package light the M.C’s President Chavo (Castro) kills two of the nuns and is given the third (Sister Sarah) for his “trouble”. Put to work as a prostitute Sarah is kept high and is only allowed to come down after she has been beaten and sexually assaulted. It is here, during Sarah’s detox, she hears God speak to her and she sets out to kill all who have committed evil against her and in God’s name.
The opening fifteen minutes of Nude Nuns with Big Guns are truly excellent. Director Guzman and Cinematographer Edwin M. Figueroa must be praised for their use of the natural landscape that the Californian desert has to offer. Several shots echo the wider cinematic world and legendary films like Once Upon A Time in the West and remarkably even The Great Silence as the white washed sand looks almost snow-like against the sky and the black of the nun habits and the biker cuts. The use of the red filter and black and white create a stylistic choice that Guzman will operate through the course of the film and unlike Guy Ritchie (for example) doesn’t overuse it. It reminds the audience of Oliver Stone’s use of colour to represented altered mental states in Natural Born Killers. The religious stylings in the film, the crucifix swipe between scenes and the blessing execution give the film a sense of humour that’s much needed in order for an exploitation film in these subgenres to work. This was the biggest problem with the European offerings during the 1970’s and is something that Guzman sets his stall out to avoid. In his effort to create the visual style of the film Guzman has, unfortunately, forgotten some of the fundamental basics of film making. With the exception of the initial sequence there is no establishing shots in the film to help map out the geography of the film for the audience it also serves the purpose of making the film look small, cheap and unprofessional which is a real shame as the rest of the camerawork is highly accomplished and doesn’t deserve to be undermined by either a lack of funds or lack of preparation.
The script is rather simplistic, the set up and resulting story arches are all untaxing. This is not a criticism of the script (Guzman & Robert James Hayes II), on the contrary, all the best revenge movies have a simple premise and if you look at a film like Coffy you’ll see how a simple set up can benefit the overall film. Sadly, like the cinematography there’s some problems here. Guzman has clearly been influenced by Quentin Tarantino and he’s unable to pass up the opportunity to tip his hat towards him on a couple of occasions, the first being lifting dialogue for Chavo straight out of Pulp Fiction and the second naming his M.C’s main hangout The Titty Flicker which is remarkably similar to The Titty Twister (seen in the Tarantino scripted From Dusk Til Dawn). Personally, Tarantino gets more than enough credit for his work as large chunks of his glittering career have been lifted straight out of Exploitation cinema and passed off as his own genius. These moments cheapen any kind of appreciation that was forming towards Nude Nuns with Big Guns. There are other problems with the film, which ideally you would leave until after the positives but as they feed into the script it makes sense that they’re dealt with now.
Run! Bitch Run! takes a pass at being what you would call a traditional ‘Rape and Revenge’ Exploitation film, a genre I have never had much love for as so many of the films in this genre treat the sexual assault as another form of excitement and therefore try to justify the act. It’s the same reason I’ve never liked Straw Dogs. Nude Nuns with Big Guns has four sexual assaults which for a film that’s 90 minutes long is a ridiculous amount of time dedicated to such an appalling act and worse still we get to see all four. These scenes can be dealt with delicately, they can be implied (which is always a lot more disturbing as the audience draws their own image) but in NNWBG not only are they drawn out but they’re heavily stylised in a way that lessened the impact of the act and almost try to make it acceptable. For a film that’s so enjoyable in parts and showcases some of the best qualities that Exploitation cinema has to offer it’s sad that it also contains some of the thematics and motifs that give the genre such a bad name. The ugly side of Exploitation is the face that most people are familiar with, we don’t need another film basking in that.
Asun Ortega (Sister Sarah) is perfect casting, again credit to Guzman as he served as Casting Director. She has the most fragile and beautifully expressive face that manages to convey softness and the tough unflinching steel of a woman wronged. Her delivery is excellent and her screen presence puts pay to any comparisons to Ms. 45. Perry D’Marco as Father Carlito gives the film a level of theatricality you genuinely don’t expect to see and his decision to play some of the scenes like they’re from a Mexican Soap Opera is astonishingly perfect. Having spent months chowing down on breakfast burritos on La Brea I am pleased to say I know my way around a Mexican Soap and his contribution was much appreciated. David Castro (Chavo) plays the role of President and chief antagonist very well, his character is there to be hated so you know not to expect too much character range. He is undoubtedly a psychopath and the way in which he dominates the screen with men twice his size is impressive. The rest of the supporting cast give performances that range from alright to out of sight, with the main exporter of brilliance being Xango Henry (Kickstand). Xango is given some of the worst scenes to portray on screen, the sexual assault of a nun who has taken a vow of silence in order to get information out of her being probably the low point but it is when he’s interacting with the M.C that we see just how dominant and powerful a presence he has on screen. His relaxed nature to his work also gives us, if needed, an on screen definition of the differences between a psychopath and a sociopath as Kickstand is indeed a sociopath.
It’s a genuine shame how uneven Nude Nuns with Big Guns is as a film as it had the real potential to be a modern Exploitation film you could enjoy and a Nunsploitation you didn’t have to feel guilty about owning. The multiple sexual assaults jar with the rest of the films aesthetic and this, coupled with the fact that the finale of the film seems all too easy to accomplish for Sister Sarah means the film runs out of steam with twenty minutes to spare. The true test for an Exploitation is whether it has grand aspirations. The best Exploitation films attempt to be more than what they are, whether they succeed is inconsequential, the pleasure is in the effort and the clear love of cinema that the film makers have. Exploitation cinema will never offer you up the same old tired scenario against a different backdrop and expect you to see it as newer and therefore better (The Hangover Part II I’m talking about you and how lazy and terrible you are!). Nude Nuns with Big Guns is 40% of the way towards being a brilliant Exploitation film and there are some really beautiful shots in it. Sarah walking away from the burning church should become iconic but the visual and written shortcomings hamper the film and the fixation on sexual violence is another reminder that the mistakes of Cesare Canevari have not been learned from by everyone.