Film, like religion, draws a great deal of its power from iconography; from images that touch and terrify and leave us emotionally dumbstruck and fumbling for the right words to give a name to what has moved us. And as far as iconography goes, the image of the nun is legend: a sea of robes, an inaccessible black mass, an incorporeal woman.
I am fascinated by nuns; how in their cloaked mystery they contain multitudes. How they invite speculation and obstruct it. How they subvert the virgin-whore dichotomy by containing fragments of both. How they run the gambit from villain to hero, from oppressor to savior, from parody to praise. How they refuse the world in order to devote themselves to it.
Cinema thrives on such juicy contradictions. And lest we forget, it’s a historical fact that a matriarchal religious community does not a haven make. We need not get our wimples in a knot about the gendered pulp of nunsploitation when history has already had a heyday undermining the sanctity of unflappable nunnish goodness.
And yet, moth to a flame, I am infatuated. I love a messy nun because I love a messy woman who dismantles expectations, and who radiates confounding possibility. Freedom, after all, is a messy thing. And who doesn’t love a good mess?
So without further ado, in chronological order, here are 25 of the worst nuns of cinema:
1. Häxan (1922)
A masterpiece of subversion, Häxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages is the forbidden fruit that keeps on giving. And you just can’t have a proper satanic Sabbath without a demonically disturbed nun inciting mass hysteria in a convent. It’s in a footnote somewhere. It is also my solemn duty to gesticulate wildly in the direction of the abbreviated 1968 version which features narration by William S. Burroughs, and an appropriately bonkers jazz soundtrack. Satan wills it.
Director: Former medical student Benjamin Christensen, who doubled down on directorial megalomania by playing both Satan and Jesus.
Bad Habit: Having “traffic” with a demon.
2. Black Narcissus (1947)
Black Narcissus is a film about fever. Not the rapturous, wild-eyed kind brought on by devils or psychedelic ergot, but the inalienable human variety of frenzy that bubbles up slowly under the pressures of restriction and the delusion of colonial hubris. Cloistered within, and alienated from the Himalayas and its people, the sisters come face to face with the frailty of their moral high ground, receding deep within themselves, and within one of the most vivid psycho-sexual melodramas put to celluloid.
Director: Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger
Bad Habit: “They renounced the world of men, but found that the world was not to be denied,” which is also what I hear in my head every time I re-download dating apps.
3. The Nun’s Story (1959)
Unlike most entries on this list, the lazily named The Nun’s Story is less interested in the sexy, violent, pulpy ways of being a bad nun than with telling the story of a young woman wrestling with whether obedience to strict rules is the best way for her to do good in the world. Gabrielle (Audrey Hepburn) is devoted to helping others, but as she spends more time within the church, her devotion to her vows is less certain.
Director: Fred Zinnemann
Bad Habit: “Dear Lord, forgive me, I cannot obey anymore. What I do from now on is between You and me alone.”
4. Mother Joan of the Angels (1961)
It’s 17th century Poland. Father Józef Suryn has been sent to investigate a rumored demonic possession that has taken place at a nearby convent. A priest, Grandier, has been burnt at the stake for being too damn sexy. The abbess is said to be possessed by eight demons. The very real outbreak of mass hysteria on which the film is based also served as the historical template for Ken Russell’s The Devils, though Mother Joan of the Angels focuses on the events following Grandier’s death. Who’s up for a double bill?
Director: Jerzy Kawalerowicz
Bad Habit: Being called “Mother Joan of the Angels” whilst being possessed by eight fucking demons.
5. The Sound of Music (1965)
The first full-blown song in this, one of the most celebrated musicals of all goddamn time, is about how much of a bad nun Maria is. Both a headache and an angel: Maria is an icon and an immaculate example of how good bad nuns can be.
Director: Robert Wise
Bad Habit: Succumbing to the unavoidable temptation of mid-60s sexpot Christopher Plummer.
6. La Religieuse (1966)
Nothing like hiding an illegitimately begot kid in a convent, am I right? It’s a classic move and one that backfires pretty spectacularly in La Religieuse. Suzanne takes her vows, but she’s not happy about it, finally taking on the church in an edge-of-your-pew third act court case when her mistreatment escalates. The film is based off a novel by Denis Diderot, one of the least boring 18th-century Enlightenment bros. He didn’t exactly have the most charitable view of organized religion so fair warning, La Religieuse is a bit of a bummer.
Director: Jacques Rivette
Bad Habit: Facing down the figurative freight train of institutional abuse.
7. Where Angels Go, Trouble Follows (1968)
Going back to the comedy nun well following the success of 1966’s The Trouble with Angels, Where Angels Go, Trouble Follows sees two nuns (one conservative, one progressive) face off while shepherding a busload of Catholic high school girls on a cross-continental field trip.
Director: James Neilson
Bad Habit: Indulging in Swinging Sixties Shenanigans.
8. Change of Habit (1969)
Elvis Presley plays Dr. John Carpenter is a ridiculous sentence but also a true thing about Change of Habit, which is a very bad film with a 10% RT score. But it features three undercover nuns having their religious resolve worn down by The King, which is a premise so hilarious I felt compelled (by Lucifer, probably) to make its existence known.
Director: William Graham
Bad Habit: Being seduced by Elvis.
9. Two Mules for Sister Sara (1970)
Oh, hello Clint Eastwood buddy western starring Shirley MacLaine as a revolutionary nun. Yes please thank you very much. And yeah, yeah, it turns out she’s actually a sex worker but I choose to live in ignorance. Let me have this.
Director: Don Siegal, in the second of five Eastwood collaborations.
Bad Habit: Shooting whiskey and shooting the French.
10. The Devils (1971)
One of the most controversial films of all time, The Devils is a benchmark of controversy both within the bad nun canon, and the medium of film itself. Vanessa Redgrave plays a sexually repressed, hunchbacked sister at the center of an explosive clusterfuck (cloister fuck?) of psycho-sexual possessions. A scathing critique of abuse of power, The Devils is sensational in every sense of the word.
Director: Ken Russell
Bad Habit: Masturbating half-heartedly with the charred remains of your sex cult leader.
11. The Nun and the Devil (1973)
Also known under it’s much cooler UK title The Sisters of Satan, The Nun and the Devil is arguably one of greatest entries in the nunsploitation genre, including all the sacrilegious staples of graphic torture, power struggles, and vows of celibacy breaking left, right, and across the gender preference spectrum. Yeah, it’s seedy, but it’s also a shockingly technically sound and well-acted drama about women being power hungry in a historical setting where female ambition was regularly quashed. I’ll take what I can get thank you very much.
Director: Domenico Paolella
Bad Habit: Using the death of a superior as an opportunity for a power grab.
12. School of the Holy Beast (1974)
So many perverse nuns so little time. The film sees a young woman become a nun to investigate her mother’s death, which transpired under mysterious circumstances at a not entirely morally upstanding convent. Straddling the difficult line between the depraved and the inspired, School of the Holy Beast is sumptuously sacrilegious, surprisingly beautiful, and a total cult classic.
Director: Noribumi Suzuki
Bad Habit: Horticultural whipping.
13. Flavia the Heretic (1974)
The 70s really liked their smut nuns! Flavia the Heretic tells of a young nun who is put through the “all the shitty things that can happen to you as a woman in the 13th century” wringer, only to take the fight back to those who did her wrong. One of the film’s taglines is “Flay me, baby, one more time,” and no I am not making that up and yes, that is reason enough for you to check out this film, which is, on its own, one of the best Fuck the Patriarchy films out there.
Director: Gianfranco Mingozzi
Bad Habit: Righteous Fury.
14. Satanico Pandemonium: La Sexorcista (1975)
As her acts of blasphemy and dreams of freedom mount, it becomes clear that Sister Maria has been tapped by the Devil to drag her convent to hell. His ridiculous cape is just too sexy to resist. Also if the film’s title sounds familiar, it’s Salma Hayek’s character’s namesake in From Dusk ‘Till Dawn!
Director: Gilberto Martínez Solares, who produced Jodorowsky’s El Topo!
Bad Habit: Being tempted by Satan’s worst-dressed emissary.
15. Alucarda (1975)
You know how girls are. Always playing with their makeups, gossiping about their boy bands, and summoning demonic forces. Alucarda follows two teen girls who “accidentally” become possessed by a demonic force, inciting all kinds of “how much blood is too much blood” shenanigans.
Director: Juan López Moctezuma
Bad Habit: Heavenly Creatures, but Satan.
16. Love Letters of a Portuguese Nun (1977)
Sometimes the satan is coming from inside the convent! That’s right, in this West German nunsploitation flick, the Spanish Inquisition throws a teen named Maria into a convent secretly run by Satanists! How unexpected.
Director: Jesús Franco
Bad Habit: Having literally one job (refusing Satan) and doing the opposite (accepting Satan).
17. Airplane! (1980)
Oh, baby. Sister Angelina gives no fucks. A riff on both the nun from Airport 1975 and actress Maureen McGovern’s ties to famous disaster films like 1974’s Towering Inferno, Sister Angelina is a guitar-wielding badass who came to slap fools and sing Aretha Franklin.
Director: David Zucker, Jim Abrahams, and Jerry Zucker.
Bad Habit: Probably more physical comedy violence than the Lord allows.
18. The Other Hell (1981)
Hey, uh, The Vatican? Maybe don’t send lone, sexy priests to conduct your clerical investigations of hysteria-riddled convents. It doesn’t work out. Full of more uncanny, supernatural disturbances than you can throw a bible at, The Other Hell is absolute, irredeemable trash. But if you’re an exploitation hound, it’s a must.
Director: Bruno Mattei, lord of the bottom-of-the-exploitation-film-barrel.
Bad Habit: I mean, leaving your mummified Mother Superior in the cellar isn’t great.
19. Dark Habits (1983)
After accidentally causing her lover to overdose, a nightclub singer named Yolanda takes refuge in a nunnery that turns out to be a lot more chill and a lot more gay than she expected. These aren’t regular nuns, these are cool nuns. Their motto is “sin is our chosen path.” Sister Manure trips on acid to prompt visions; Sister Rat of the Sewers writes softcore porn; Sisters Sin and Snake get it on. Nice.
Director: Pedro Almodóvar
Bad Habit: “I’ll mortify myself. The crowd will love it.”
20. Hudson Hawk (1991)
We all remember Bruce Willis’ only writing credit, Hudson Hawk, right? Well, I do. I wish I didn’t, but I do. And I sure as heck remember Andie MacDowell’s turn as a *check’s notes* sexy, Vatican counter-espionage nun? Right.
Director: Michael Lehmann
Bad Habit: Using a da Vinci flying machine to escape a castle so Bruce Willis can finally get his cappuccino.
21. Sister Act (1992)
In a tamer and a more commercial echo of Dark Habits, Sister Act sees international treasure Whoopi Goldberg as a worldly lounge singer who must relocate to a convent for her protection. Only, this convent’s more straight-laced than Almodóvar’s. It’s run by Maggie Smith after all.
Director: Emile Ardolino
Bad Habit: Undermining Dame Maggie’s authority with “boogie-woogie on the piano” to get butts in seats.
22. The Magdalene Sisters (2002)
While it’s true that convents once acted as one of the few ways women could be educated and retain a semblance of independence, nuns have been a source of oppression for a lot of folks. Whether its in the inhumanity and abuse of residential schools (depicted vividly in last year’s Indian Horse) or in The Magdalene Sisters, which took aim at the church’s forced imprisonment and servitude of “wayward women” in Ireland—this is a vision of a nun who is complicit, cruel, and as a consequence, entirely ungodly.
Director: Peter Mullan
23. The Conjuring 2 (2016)
The Demon Valak takes many forms in The Conjuring 2, but none that speak to my crooked soul more than the spooky nun. I love that Valak, Great President of Hell, loves jump scares. I love that Valak has a sense of irony in assuming the shape of a nun. I love that, with appearances in Annabelle: Creation and this fall’s The Nun, the franchise is zeroing in on its true, big scare money-maker: nuns, baby!
Director: James Wan
Bad Habit: Dramatic jump scare timing.
24. Little Sister (2016)
Colleen, a young nun who wants nothing to do with her family, has just received an email from her mom. Her brother is back from his tour in Iraq, horribly disfigured and reclusive. With elegiac gentleness, the film charts the precise, delicate heartaches of coming home and the radical joy of bridging seemingly unbridgeable gaps. Colleen is both the goth and the nun; assured, whole, and happily full of tension.
Director: Zach Clark
Bad Habit:“When you were growing up, Dad and I thought you’d become a lesbian Satanist.” // “Sometimes I think you’re sad I’m not.”
25. The Little Hours (2017)
Allison Brie, Aubrey Plaza, and Kate Micucci go full bawdy Boccaccio in a film about nuns, monks, and just about everyone shy of a donkey behaving badly. There’s lustiness, irreverence, and all manner of raunchy revelry. While it’s truth that the film basically has one joke (albeit one with rich historical precedent), it pulls it off charmingly, and is well worth the watch.
Director: Jeff Baena
Bad Habit: Clandestine fertility rituals.
- The stern, crisp potentiality of Meryl Streep’s acrid portrayal of Sister Aloysius in Doubt (2008)
- The deliciously depraved sister Monika of Suor Emanuelle (1977) who manages the rare feat of not getting killed off as punishment for being a Woman Who Fucks™.
- In The Killer Nun (1979), brain surgery leaves Sister Gertrude with a taste for heroin, same-sex trysts, and, oh yeah, murder.
- I’ll give you three guesses as to what goes on Behind Convent Walls (1978).
- Christ, how could we forget Sister Mary Stigmata (a.k.a The Penguin) of The Blues Brothers (1980) and her slap-happy ruler.
- The dark bell-ringing specter that prompts Kim Novak to jump to her death in Vertigo (1958)
- Sacred Flesh (2000)…exists. As does Nude Nuns with Big Guns (2010).
- Freddy’s mom in A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors (1987).
- Maureen Coyle, the mentally unsettled ex-nun in Psycho III (1986) that reminds Norman Bates of Marion Crane.
- In Nun of That (2009) Sister Kelly Wrath gets killed in a drive-by only to return from heaven as a killer trained by Moses, Gandhi, and Jesus to exact her revenge.
- The zombified Nun, in 2005’s creatively named The Nun.
- Agnes of God (1985) is a bad film based on a good play about what happens when you cross the infanticide and immaculate conception streams.