December 25, 2012

Death Rattle Double Feature: Passion of the Holy Beast

True story: A few years ago, I thought it would be funny to cover these two movies as a Christmas double feature, but I never got around to actually doing it. Well, this year, I left it up to friends and readers of The Death Rattle to program my Christmas double feature, and these were the two movies that they chose. I posted a poll in the Facebook Group with a list of about six or seven movies to choose from, and these were the two that got the most votes. So now I've come full circle and I find myself reviewing the two movies that I had intended on reviewing years ago. These two films couldn't be further apart from each other in terms of their target audiences, but they do share a common theme of Christmas. Sort of.

SCHOOL HOLY OF THE HOLY BEAST got the most votes on the poll by far. I picked it because I thought it'd be an ironic film to cover; turns out part of it actually takes place on Christmas! It's a Japanese exploitation film from the 70's that falls into the Nunsploitation category. In fact, it's one of the more noteworthy examples of the strange sub-genre of exploitation cinema. "Nunsploitation", for those of you who aren't familiar, pretty much speaks for itself. These movies feature nuns being exploited, obviously, but these films also exploit the Catholic church in general. That said, SCHOOL OF THE HOLY BEAST is like a giant middle finger to the Catholic church, but I'll get to that later.

The lead character, a stunning young woman named Maya Takigawa (Yumi Takigawa), becomes a nun and basically infiltrates a convent (or "abbey" as its called in the film) with the intention of finding out what happened to her mother who apparently died behind the convent's walls many years ago. Once in the convent, she's initiated and briefed by her superiors, and the rules seem pretty simple enough to follow: don't fuck, kill, or steal, or else you'll be punished.

Right away, SCHOOL OF THE HOLY BEAST questions the logic behind Catholicism and Christianity, neither of which are widely practiced religions in Japan. Essentially, both religions (mostly Catholicism) are made a mockery of in a way that's far from subtle. One of the young nuns questions the theory of immaculate conception and points out to one of her superiors that it doesn't make much sense, which, regardless of your religious beliefs, is true; I'm sure we're all mature enough to know that women just don't randomly get pregnant without having sex unless she cannonballs into a swimming pool full of semen or something. Frustrated, the nun's superior replies with something along the lines of "That's just the way it is and you have to accept it." We as viewers quickly find out that most of the young nuns don't give a shit about religion and are just there because they're troublemakers. Needless to say, Maya fits in just fine, and the disrespectful behavior towards the elder nuns is something that continues. It should be said, though, that the behavior of the younger nuns isn't met without discipline, and this is where we get the numerous scenes of the young women being exploited. But, for the most part, the young women just exploit themselves.

The film is full of eroticism and great pay-offs if you're one of those people who watches SCHOOL OF THE HOLY BEAST to see it live up to its reputation. Topless nuns being forced to whip each other, masturbation and lesbian sex with religious iconography present, so on and so forth. The things you'll see in this movie aren't uncommon to other films of its ilk, but the Nunsploitation conventions are cranked up to eleven more often than not. Basically, tons of taboo imagery - so much, in fact, that the film almost borders on comedic at times because of how over the top it goes.

SCHOOL OF THE HOLY BEAST, for the most part, is a quiet film and not very heavy on dialogue, and it's also a bit convoluted for not having much of a plot, if that makes any sense. Regardless, this is an essential Nunsploitation film. I haven't seen enough Nunsploitation to say if this is the cream of the crop or not, but I do know that I prefer others more than this. Sleaze aside, the film gets into some heavy cultural commentary towards the end that could be perceived as anti-American, or anti-"Western" to use a broader term. Something else of note is the convent itself and how fucked up it is, which kinda goes back to what I said about this movie being pretty absurd. Without giving away anything in particular, I'll just say that the film gets into some weird Sci-Fi and Horror shit towards the end. If you're curious about the Nunsploitation sub-genre or if the taboo aesthetic appeals to you, SCHOOL OF THE HOLY BEAST is a must-see.

Christmas has become such a consumerism-based holiday that it's easy for a lot of people to forget that December 25th is the birthday of Jesus Christ, so it's only appropriate that I review a movie on Christmas that celebrates the existence of Christ. Truth be told, I regret even considering this movie to review, for the simple fact that it's a tricky one to write about without getting into a touchy subject like religion. Do I approach this movie as a piece of fiction or as fact? It's a lose-lose situation. If I go one way or the other, it'll out my religious beliefs or lack thereof, and I'd prefer not to get into that on a public forum. What I do or don't believe in is no one's business. That being said, I'm gonna try my best to review THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST as a film and focus on its narrative and whether or not it succeeds at what it's trying to do.

It doesn't matter if you're religious or not; I'm sure you all know who Jesus Christ is, yeah? OK, good. The title PASSION OF THE CHRIST is based on the "Passion of Jesus", which, in Christian lore, refers to the final hours of Jesus leading up to his crucifixion. Looking at the film from an unbiased perspective, it basically portrays Jesus as a delusional cult leader who's unmercifully punished by the Jews for claiming to be the Son of God, until a "twist ending" reveals that perhaps his prophecies were right all along. The film begins with Jesus being betrayed by one of his followers, Judas, who gives him the kiss of death and turns him over to some Vlad the Impaler-looking dudes in exchange for money. Jesus is then brutally beaten to the point of near-death over and over again and passed around by the Jews who had him apprehended in the first place, and his fate is ultimately decided by the people, most of whom want him dead. From a storytelling standpoint, it's all a bit convoluted but easy enough to follow along.

Of course we all know what Christ's fate was, so that goes without saying, but the point of the film is to show you (and make you feel) what he went through in the days leading up to his death, which, in theory, should make you appreciate him more as a religious figure and a person. A majority of the film is essentially Jesus being physically destroyed while we learn more about him and his beliefs through flashback scenes. Interestingly, Satan appears throughout the film as an observer and an androgynous figure rather than the horned beast he's known as in pop culture. The ominous appearances of Satan (played by an Italian woman named Rosalinda Celentano) add a horror element to the film and are more symbolic than anything.

A majority of PASSION OF THE CHRIST essentially plays out like the Salem Witch Trials in the way that Jesus is accused and judged by those around him. There's an interesting balance between hope and hopelessness throughout the film as well. The hopelessness comes from Christ's situation; anyone who stands up for him is shunned, and the followers who stick with him until the end (his mother Mary, the prostitute Mary Magdalen, and John) have to keep their distance and simply observe unless they want to join him. The feeling of hope comes from Jesus refusing to back down and betray what he believes in (that he's the "Chosen One" and will carry out God's plan), even if it means experiencing the worst physical pain imaginable.

Again, religious beliefs or lack thereof aside, PASSION OF THE CHRIST is pretty amazing as a piece of cinema. A lot of people - critics and general audience members alike - felt that the film's extreme violence overshadowed everything else about it upon its release. I agree with this to an extent; not because I feel the violence takes away from the film, but rather because it's what everyone focuses on when talking about it. Though brutal and hard to watch at times, I'm fine with the violence overall. The thing is, this is a very well-made film. I initially saw PASSION OF THE CHRIST on the big screen and walked out of the theater absolutely stunned by what I'd just seen. There were more than a couple of awkward moments of silence between myself and the friend of mine who I saw it with on the drive home. Watching it now, though, and knowing what to expect in terms of the violence, "the gore", and how emotionally moving it is, I'm able to appreciate it as a quality piece of cinema. In my opinion, it's one of the most beautifully shot films of the 21st century thus far that I've seen, and the score by John Debney is about as perfect as it gets.

What actor Jim Caviezel went through while making this movie is the stuff of legend at this point. Apparently he was struck by lightning more than once during production, which is both ironic and bizarre. Even though he's just being beaten, expressing pain, and falling down for most of the film, he turns in an amazing performance along with pretty much the rest of the cast, especially Maia Morgenstern and Monica Bellucci, who play Mary and Magdalen respectively. There's something about Caviezel that makes him inherently sympathetic in this film, and for me it comes down to his face, his eyes, and how he carries himself. And I can only imagine how uncomfortable it was for him to shoot the torture scenes. Despite how many safety precautions were taken and how much of what we see is "Hollywood magic", it had to take a toll on him emotionally.

Regardless of what you do or don't believe in, it's hard not to be moved by the end of this film. If you've seen PASSION OF THE CHRIST and you can say that you walked away from it the same as before you saw it, you're either lying or you went into the movie with strong opinions. The effect of the final moments of the film has nothing to do with its message, what it's trying to say, or whether or not it's all just a bunch of religious propaganda; its effect lies in the fact that you just watched a grown man being harshly punished for his beliefs while his loved ones helplessly had to witness the entire thing.

If there's a valid complaint to be made, it's that the film is based on numerous source materials. Someone who's indifferent towards religion would probably assume that PASSION OF THE CHRIST is simply based on "the Bible" when, in fact, there's more to it than that. That said, it's like director Mel Gibson and the screenwriters are telling you the best version of the "story" based on how well it translates into a film. It's also arguable that they're telling you the version of the story that they want you to hear, and unless you're well educated in Christianity or you're a devout practitioner of the religion, there's no way to tell the difference, in which case PASSION OF THE CHRIST could indeed be misconstrued as Christian propaganda. And, thanks to Mel Gibson's crazy, drunken antics over the years, we all know where he stands as far as his outlook on certain religions.


  1. Duder, this is a pretty amazing double feature. Did you have nightmares afterwards?

  2. This IS an awesome double feature! Kudos for the selections and also for finally following through on reviewing them! I actually own both of these on DVD, but I haven't gotten around to watching the THE PASSION yet. Have you checked out the DVD supplements for HOLY BEAST? They're pretty interesting. The interview with the main actress is interesting because she's clearly embarrassed if not ashamed for her work in this film. She's worked in other films, but notably non-exploitation, and I think she was shocked that anybody was still interested in this film when they came to interview her. Then there's an interview with some writer specializing in Japanese Film who gives some background on the movie that had some cool info in it. Like, apparently the greatest concentration of Catholic churches in Japan was in Nagasaki (the second city that was hit by an atomic bomb during WWII). Anyway, HOLY BEAST is pretty amazing, and this film along with SEX AND FURY was a pretty cool intro to director Norifumi Suzuki's work.