Redemption Films has released founder Nigel Wingrove’s SACRED FLESH a couple times in both the US and the UK, but they’ve used this new release through Kino Lorber to unveil the previously banned “blasphemous” VISIONS OF ECSTASY as the headliner.
In VISIONS OF ECSTASY (1989; 19:47), Sister Teresa (Louise Downie) pierces the palm of her hand with a nail. In her euphoria she experiences two contrasting visions. In the first, she is bound and helpless to resist being groped by her own psyche (Elisha Scott), while in the other Teresa makes love to a crucified Christ (Dan Fox). Banned as blasphemous by the BBFC upon attempted release, VISIONS OF ECSTASY is – for all of art director-turned-director Nigel Wingrove’s stated intentions –certainly deliberately provocative, of course, with its equivalence of religious ecstasy with masturbation and St. Teresa straddling a horizontally-crucified Christ and licking his wound (like Scott, Downie was a go go dancer for The Beastie Boys). For all it’s supposed blasphemy (it could be interpreted as such, but it’s pretty laughable that it caused such a fuss), VISIONS doesn’t have quite the same charge as Ken Russell (Scott played one of the violated nuns in LAIR OF THE WHITE WORM’s convent flashback) or Derek Jarman (it’s actually more along the lines of Chris Boger’s JUSTINE/CRUEL PASSION). The mise-en-scene of VISIONS OF ECSTASY seems very much a blueprint for the design of Redemption Films/Salvation Films video line (which makes sense since Wingrove founded the label a few years after). The short has no dialogue, with its aural component entirely composed of a synth score by Steven Severin of Siouxsie and the Banshees.
The second short film of art director-turned-filmmaker Nigel Wingrove, VISIONS OF ECSTASY was refused classification by the BBFC who deemed it blasphemous and an attack on the Church of England. Wingrove filed suit at great personal expense but the ban was not overturned, and the film remained unseen in the UK until the country’s blasphemy laws were overturned in 2008. VISIONS OF ECSTASY was finally released on DVD in the UK last March by Redemption and stateside in October. Redemption’s US transfer of VISIONS OF ECSTASY looks a bit soft during its credit sequences, which may have been derived from another source since the body of the film looks vibrant and blemish-free. The music-only Dolby Digital 2.0 audio is in fine condition. Accompanying VISIONS OF ECSTASY are silent outtakes (10:13) and a 1990 interview with Wingrove (5:18) in which he is understandably still raw about the banning of the film and the ensuing press and legal battle. The major extras of the set are actually three more films by Wingrove: two shorts as well as his first feature-length film.
Very loosely based on a play by symbolist author Auguste Villiers de l'Isle-Adam, AXEL (1988; 7:38) seems like Jean Rollin mashed up with Juan Lopez Moctezuma (ALUCARDA and THE MANSION OF MADNESS) as a nude woman (Saskia Brandauer) – wearing a golden bird mask – dreams of an encounter with a woman in silver horse mask (Sharon Robinson) and then an angel (Rubecca Mohamed) before dying dies (in the Villiers story, an heiress flees a convent because she is not ready to take the veil and falls for her cousin Axel – who has also turned his back on being initiated into the Rosicrucian order – they fall in love, find a treasure, and decide to off themselves). In FAUSTINE (1990; 2:47), Redemption hostess Eileen Daly (ALL ABOUT ANNA) straddles a nude man and recites an abridged version of the titular Algernon Charles Swinburne poem to the camera. AXEL is pleasingly grainy in the low-light, gel-lit scenes while FAUSTINE looks even better.
In the almost feature-length SACRED FLESH (2000; 72:15), the Abbess of the Church of the Sacred Heart (Moyna Cope, ACTS OF GODFREY) writes that the Abbot (Simon Hill) about her concern that the Mother Superior (Sally Tremaine) is possessed (either by the devil or her own dementia). Her mania seems to be the idea that reformed prostitute/disciple of Christ Mary Magdalene is actually an unrepentant whore who bedevils her with lustful feelings through the medium of a canoness whose face has rotted away into a skull and a succubus (Laura Plair). By the time the Abbot has arrived at the convent to discuss matters with the Abbess, the Mother Superior has – at least in her mind – entered into a plane of existence where she gets to meet Mary Magdalene in person (Kristina Bill, THE AFFAIR OF THE NECKLACE) who calls her on the hypocrisy of comforting and counseling the sisters while increasing her own torment by hearing their confessions. The Mother Superior and Mary Magadalene and the Abbot and Abbess have parallel dialogues as to whether repression (the “cursed virginity” of the Brides of Christ) or uncontrolled sexuality is the more harmful, illustrated with episodes involving self-mutilation, flagellation, masturbation, lesbian clinches (consensual and nonconsensual), and the like punctuated with some lighter bawdiness between the Abbot’s groom (Moses Rockman) and the maid Marion (Louise Linehan) offered in healthy contrast to the repressed sexuality of the nuns (Rockman also gets to grope future horror hostess Emily Booth [CRADLE OF FEAR]).
Like VISIONS OF ECSTASY, SACRED FLESH owes more visually to Russell and Jarman than Italian nunsploitation, but its attempts at surrealism feel more impoverished and – for those who find Redemption’s “satanic sluts” cover designs tiresome and are accustomed to fast-forwarding or skipping over their VHS and DVD introductions – some of the sexual vignettes may be less stimulating in their duration than the dialogues (contrived as they sometimes are despite Wingrove’s seeming sincerity). The exterior and grounds of the convent are actually Knebworth House (a striking location used in many a genre film including HORROR HOSPITAL, THE MONSTER CLUB, Alan Birkinshaw’s HOUSE OF USHER, Ken Russell’s THE LAIR OF THE WHITE WORM, the Gene Wilder horror comedy HAUNTED HONEYMOON, as well as Tim Burton’s BATMAN and many a British TV period piece), and Wingrove makes good use of its striking features. The title sequence was designed by editor Jake West who has gone on to direct a handful of feature films including EVIL ALIENS and PUMPKINHEAD: ASHES TO ASHES, featurettes for UK releases of films like SCANNERS, HELLRAISER, THE EVIL DEAD, and MARK OF THE DEVIL, and horror documentaries including the valuable VIDEO NASTIES: MORAL PANIC, CENSORSHIP, & VIDEOTAPE (West’s Nucleus Films DVD label co-founder Marc Morris appears as one of a pair of inquisitors who takes advantage of a novice [adult film actress Majella Shepherd]).
Although there are a number of lovely images on display, the broadcast-quality digital videography of SACRED FLESH still looks cheap compared to the previous films (and attempts to filter and soften the image look worse). The earlier UK and US DVD releases featured a BBFC-cut version of the film (with cuts substituted). Redemption/Kino Lorber’s PAL-NTSC transfer seems to be the same cut, but it regrettably lacks the audio commentary Wingrove recorded for the earlier UK DVD release (and also included on the American 2004 Heretic Films and 2009 Redemption Films USA releases). The Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo audio is in fine quality but subject to the limitations of the original mix (the processed voice of the skeletal canoness is sometimes hard to understand so optional English might have proved useful).
Wingrove hosts “Hail Mary! A Brief Peak at Nunsploitation” (23:34), a 2009 featurette created for the Redemption USA DVD which isn’t really a nunsploitation documentary. Despite clips from Jess Franco’s LES DEMONS, Chris Boger’s JUSTINE, and Sergio Grieco’s THE SINFUL NUNS OF SAINT VALENTINE (all Redemption titles) – and stills from Benjamin Christiansen’s HAXAN, Ken Russell’s THE DEVILS, Walerian Borowczyk’s BEHIND CONVENT WALLS, and Noribumi Suzuki’s SCHOOL OF THE HOLY BEAST – “Hail Mary!” is actually a more comprehensive interview with Wingrove with more background on VISIONS OF ECSTASY and SACRED FLESH as well as AXEL (which he describes as “a bit wanky”) and the founding of Redemption Films. Narrator Rebecca Johnson (borrowing with credit from Steve Fenton’s book “AntiChristo: The Bible of Nasty Nun Sinema Culture”) briefly touches upon the literary roots of nunsploitation (primarily Chaucer), historical antecedents like the Loudon affair which inspired Aldous Huxley’s THE DEVILS OF LOUDON and Ken Russell’s filmic adaptation (although no mention is made of Denis Diderot’s “La Religieuse” or Sister Virginia de Leyva whose story inspired a handful of films including Eriprando Visconti’s THE LADY OF MONZA, Bruno Mattei’s THE TRUE STORY OF THE NUN OF MONZA (filmed back to back with THE OTHER HELL by Mattei and Claudio Fragasso), and Luciano Odorisio’s SACRILEGE/THE DEVILS OF MONZA), and the proliferation of the film subgenre in Catholic countries. After a little background on his work as an art director, Wingrove discusses the banning of VISIONS OF ECSTASY, which he saw as a petty reaction to the controversies of Martin Scorcese’s THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST, Madonna’s “Like a Prayer” video, and Salman Rushdie’s “The Satanic Verses” (Graham Bright, who introduced the Video Recordings Act into law in 1984, wanted the film destroyed).
SACRED FLESH began as a vampire film until Wingrove was contacted by the BBC who were interested in covering a nunsploitation film; so he decided on four sex stories involving nuns joined together by a Mother Superior reading confessions. Wingrove then decided on a more complex structure with the dialogues between the Mother Superior and Mary Magdalene and the Abbess and Abbot. He feels dissatisfied with the outcome because he rushed to integrate this material into the script. Wingrove also discusses founding Redemption Films in 1992 after his burgeoning filmmaking career went sideways with the banning of VISIONS. He acquired five films including Mario Bava’s THE MASK OF SATAN (the export version of BLACK SUNDAY) and LISA AND THE DEVIL as well as Giuseppe Patroni Griffi’s ‘TIS PITY SHE’S A WHORE; however, the big sellers of this first package were Tinto Brass’ SALON KITTY and the more relevant – to this discussion – KILLER NUN (directed by Giulio Berruti). Redemption’s UK release also came with a 36-page booklet by Wingrove on the banning of VISIONS OF ECSTASY. That booklet is reproduced here as a DVD-ROM extra in the PDF format and offers some of the same information covered in the featurette. (Eric Cotenas)
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