• Love Letters Of A Portuguese Nun

    Released by: Full Moon Features
    Released on: August 18, 2016
    Directed by: Jess Franco
    Cast: Susan Hemingway, William Berger, Ana Zanatti, Aida Vargas, Herbert Fux, Vitor Mendes, Herman Jose
    Year: 1977
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    The Movie:

    Letters of a Portuguese Nun (notice the lack of the word Love) were first published in Paris in 1669; believed to be true, they became a written sensation. For years, they were attributed to a Portuguese nun who allegedly wrote them to her lover, a Parisian count. Today they are considered a work of epistolary fiction, most probably written by Claude Barbin. Erotic in nature, they bear little resemblance to the 1977 film adaptation by Spanish director Jess Franco. Instead, Franco’s main source of inspiration appears to have been the innumerable nunsploitation films of his time.

    Nunsploitation got its start back in the early days of silent cinema with The Life of a Nun in 1911. The Danish production introduced many of the elements that would later define the subgenre. It’s story of a priest who lusts after a girl and convinces her father to place her in his monastery bears more than a superficial resemblance to Franco’s film, though Franco upped the ante in terms of sex, nudity, violence, and Satanism.

    When Father Vicente (William Berger) spies virginal Maria (Susan Hemingway) cavorting with a would-be lover, he grows aroused. Desperate to have the girl in his power, he convinces her mother (Patricia Da Silva) to place her in a convent. There, her virginity is immediately tested by lesbian grand priestess Mother Alma (Ana Zanatti), and she is duly punished for nonexistent crimes in various ways that require her to submit to sexual abuse and torture. She isn’t the only one, of course, and the convent in fact houses a group of devil worshippers who call down Satan (Herbert Fux) to join them in their wicked games. Maria begs God for assistance, and a young knight comes to her rescue. Unfortunately, he is no match for the Inquisition.

    A commonly held view among horror film aficionados is that director Franco was little more than a hack, a poor man’s Terence Fisher working within the genre at a time when Europe was seeing an unprecedented burgeoning of the horror film, thanks in part to the worldwide success of the model set by Hammer Film Productions. And indeed, Franco began his horror career with a derivative (though entertaining and somewhat transgressive) Gothic melodrama that was as much Georges Franju as it was Fisher. (He claimed to have gotten the idea for his initial horror foray, The Awful Dr. Orlof, 1962, after seeing Fisher’s The Brides of the Dracula in 1961.) That Franco was a hack, however, is an unfair assessment usually made by people who have seen few, if any, of his films. It’s certainly true that the prolific director could churn them out, often with little evidence of quality. But to lump all of his films into one judgmental basket seems wildly unfair to a man whose body of work has nearly as many ups as it does downs and who could clearly make an artistic endeavor when he set his mind to it. How else can one explain Succubus (1968), Venus in Furs (1969), the Red Lips movies, or Barbed Wire Dolls (1976). Indeed, Franco could find perversion in art and art in perversion.

    Love Letters of a Portuguese Nun is neither his best nor his worst movie, but if one had to classify it, it would tend more toward the former than the latter. The story may be a bit obvious and Sadian, but Franco’s eye is up to the task of relating an erotic tale with horror asides. William Berger is suitably nasty as the lustful priest, while Susan Hemingway is suitably innocent as his naïve victim. As with so many of the director’s films, Franco takes a decidedly condemnatory view of organized religion, equating it not with salvation but with damnation. Rather than reflect in the image of God, the inhabitants of the monastery corrupt and destroy; hence Satan’s appearance amidst the holy figures who call the monastery walls home.

    As Franco’s career went on, it’s true that he began an overreliance on the zoom lens, and extremely low budgets seemed to restrict his greater vision. Yet, when he gave his work his all, he produced material of great value. And among his better offerings lies Love Letters of a Portuguese Nun, a nunsploitation film that tries… and succeeds…


    Love Letters of a Portuguese Nun has been released uncut and remastered on DVD courtesy of Full Moon Features and is presented in 480p in the film’s original 1.85:1 theatrical aspect ratio. The transfer was clearly taken from the hi-def master prepared for the German Blu-ray release of 2014 and looks very good, exhibiting a far higher level of detail than the average DVD, particularly in the forest scenes. The open credit sequence is a little softer than the remainder of the picture, but that’s to be expected given the presence of opticals. In general, the image features a beautifully filmic look, with the many leaves of the trees and cold stone of the abbey looking resplendent. Colors are good, but it should be noted that this is a very naturalistic picture, not an early Technicolor effort, and Franco uses mostly subdued tones to paint his images. The occasional reds and greens are nice, though most colors appear slightly pallid, a fact that can be seen most clearly in flesh tones. Grain is moderate but noise becomes more pronounced in some of the night-time or darker sequences. This effect doesn’t last long and isn’t throughout the entire film, so it shouldn’t be problematic for most viewers.

    The film’s soundtrack has been remastered in English Dolby Digital 5.1. There are no alternate tracks, so some purists may have a problem with this. That said, the track is very clean, with the dubbing being clear and easy to understand. (Good thing, because there are no subtitles for the deaf or hearing impaired.) There are not a lot of sound effects for the various speakers, but what few there are sound fine, and the score—holy music that accentuates some scenes—is quite nice. But it would have been great to have been offered the original German track with English subtitles.

    There are a number of extras for Franco fans to dig into. First up is a featurette titled “Memories of a Portuguese Nun” that includes interviews with Jess Franco himself, producer Erwin C. Dietrich, actors Herbert Fux and Lina Romay, and cinematographer Peter Baumgartner. It runs approximately 13 minutes and includes English subtitles, including for Franco, who actually speaks in English! Franco makes some wild claims, but then, he was a bigger-than-life personality. Many of the interviews were clearly shot years ago (in 2001, to be exact); Franco and Romay both have since passed away. It’s an informative little program, with some wonderful footage of Franco.

    Next up is “Franco, Lina and Fux at the Film Museum Munich.” The featurette lasts a little over five minutes, with the director and his wife guests of honor at a German museum. Franco, Lina, and Fux take questions during a question-and-answer session. It, too, contains English subtitles despite the fact that Franco speaks English. (His accent is very thick and difficult to understand.) A number of subjects are discussed, all with Franco’s traditional relish. The program was shot on low-grade digital video but is still watchable, thanks to the participants, who are friendly, warm and often charming. Romay’s explanation for where she got her ‘stage name’ is a particularly fun moment. There’s also footage of Franco and Romay wandering the streets of Munich having the time of their lives.

    “Franco, Bloody Franco” is an audio interview with the late director, first recorded in 1976. It runs over 40 minutes and is conducted in a foreign language. Subtitles are provided. It’s a fascinating window into one of Franco’s most prolific and creative periods, with much of the discussion centering on the filming of Jack the Ripper (1976). That film’s star, Klaus Kinski, is also discussed, as are the shooting locations, the director’s earlier work, Edgar Wallace, his hatred of the Hammer school of horror filmmaking (and Terence Fisher in particular), and so much more. All of this is set to images of press materials and from the film (which repeat as the audio presentation goes on). The interview is divided into eight chapters.

    Rounding out the extras is a vintage VHS trailer reel (6:44) for Franco’s films, including The Oasis of the Living Dead (1982), Demoniac (1974), A Virgin Among the Living Dead (1971), The Screaming Dead (1972), Erotikill (1973), and The Invisible Dead (1970). Most of these films are known under other, more familiar titles today. The reel runs just under seven minutes.

    When the DVD is popped into the player, it begins with two promos, one for Full Moon’s new streaming service, the other for the website Full Moon Direct.

    The Final Word:

    Love Letters of a Portuguese Nun is one of Franco’s better offerings from the late 1970s. A nunsploitation film with plenty of sex, nudity, blood, and Satanism, the director manages to string it all together with a surprisingly solid story about a young girl’s victimizations by the deeply religious and inherently exploitative society around her. Full Moon’s DVD release appears a little pale in terms of color, but the detail level is quite high, especially for the format, and is revealing of textures. When upscaled in a Blu-ray player, it looks quite good, though not to the quality of a BD itself. There’s a slight noise problem at times, but plenty of extras help balance out what is ultimately a solid package.

    Christopher Workman is a freelance writer, film critic, and co-author (with Troy Howarth) of the Tome of Terror horror film review series. Horror Films of the 1930s is currently available, with Horror Films of the Silent Era: Book One (1895-1915) and Book Two (1916-1929) due out later this year.

    Comments 3 Comments
    1. Lalala76's Avatar
      Lalala76 -
      Chris does Franco. I'm liking this.

      I have the Ascot-Blu-ray.

      Portuguese nun is the most well put together film from Franco's period with Dietrich. It's not my favourite from the period as that honour goes to "DOWNTOWN" however few would argue that its probably his best from the Dietrich produced era
    1. Mark C.'s Avatar
      Mark C. -
      Quote Originally Posted by Lalala76 View Post
      Chris does Franco. I'm liking this.

      I have the Ascot-Blu-ray.

      Portuguese nun is the most well put together film from Franco's period with Dietrich. It's not my favourite from the period as that honour goes to "DOWNTOWN" however few would argue that its probably his best from the Dietrich produced era
      It's my favorite Franco of all time. Helmut Berger and Herbert Fux are great in it.
    1. C.D. Workman's Avatar
      C.D. Workman -
      It is a good film. Sometimes Franco let his sexploitation plots get the better of him, but he doesn't here. It all seems weirdly in balance!