Well, the first thing this SATANICO PANDEMONIUM retrospective needs is some Fun Facts. So, yes, let’s get started: if the film’s title sounds familiar, it’s because this was the name given to Salma Hayek’s character in FROM DUSK TILL DAWN. Even more of a fun fact, especially after you figure in all of the nudity, Satanism, lesbian nuns, and attempted child seduction is that the movie was filmed in real Mexican convents. I can only assume they were not operational at the time.
The film takes place… I don’t know… some time when the Spanish Inquisition was still a thing. The story concerns Sister Maria (Cecilia Pezet), a young nun who is corrupted by a very dapper Satan who is constantly flashing his bedroom eyes, played by the very handsome Enrique Rocha. One afternoon, Sister Maria is outside the convent collecting flowers when all of a sudden a naked man appears in front of her, smiling seductively. This is, of course, Enrique Rocha’s Handsome Satan. Sister Maria does what any reasonable person would do in the same situation: She screams like a maniac and flees the scene. I mean, I would do the same thing. Still, you get the impression that, even for a nun, Sister Maria is a bit tightly wound. But that’s about to change. Hoo-boy, is it.
Director Gilberto Martínez Solares turns a story that could easily become a fairly run of the mill nunsploitation experience into a film with at least some arthouse sensibilities. The film is certainly very pleasant to look at. Very soft colors during the outdoor scenes, and beautiful blue habits on the nuns that really pop when contrasted with the drab colors of the convent. There’s a really cool shot near the middle of the film where Enrique Rocha stares almost through the camera as he stands behind a sparkling orange wall of fire. Martínez Solares also pays a lot of attention to shot composition. This attention to detail is quite impressive, especially when you consider that the director made up to seven films per year. Two other films were released in 1975, the same year as SATANICO PANDEMONIUM. The movie might have been filmed as early as 1973, but in any year, it’s still quite impressive.
Don’t get me wrong, though. Despite the arthouse flourishes, this is definitely an exploitation film. The “special” effects are largely done in-camera, giving the thing a quirky, amateur feel at times. Also, in the tradition of the best exploitation films, the script is pretty batshit. For instance, Sister Maria, soon after giving into the Devil’s temptations, decides that the first order of business is to seduce a twelve-year-old boy. I don’t know how old the character is supposed to be exactly, but he’s certainly supposed to be a pre-teen. andt the actor who plays the kid definitely looks twelve. I really hope he was older, though, considering there’s a scene where a completely naked Sister Maria tries to sexually assault him. And, yes, the boy is stark naked, too. We only see a bit of his butt, but that still makes for some very uncomfortable stuff. If you’re not at least slightly taken aback by this, imagine the genders were reversed. Yeah. It’s not good. But if part of the reason for making an exploitation film is the shock value, well, SATANICO PANDEMONIUM definitely accomplishes this.
Thankfully, the rest of the film is just good old-fashioned violence and degeneracy. Take for instance the bacchanal at the end of the film. I’m not sure it even deserves to be called a proper bacchanal, although that’s clearly what Martínez Solares was going for. Anyway, it’s mostly just a bunch of naked ladies playing guitars and lutes and doing a bit of dancing.
And on the violence front, Cecilia Pezet has the weirdest way of pretending to stab someone, and supposedly in the heat of passion, no less. It’s all very casual, as if she’s trying to hit people with one of those squeaky hammers they make for toddlers instead of a pair of scissors. Just a casual pop, and then blood starts flowing from a wound. Now this is the kind of silliness I’m here for!
Cicilia Pezet had an unfortunately brief acting career that only lasted from the early-to-mid-’70s. Quite a shame, since she’s really very good. She can play the well-intentioned virginal nun just as convincingly as she plays the maniac who lightly stabs people in anger. Sister Maria is constantly doing terrible things to people, only to cry in shame immediately afterward. This requires a rather stark change in emotion in a very short amount of time, but Pezet is up to the challenge. SATANICO PANDEMONIUM might get pretty daft at times, but Pezet is always worth watching.
Enrique Rocha only has one job, and that’s basically to stand around, sometimes even with clothes on, and look seductive. As it happens, he is very good at his job. He’s a real cool cat, all stoic with his disarming smile. Ya dig? I honestly have no idea if Rocha is a good actor, or just good at this one thing. I suspect he’s probably a good actor in general.
So what’s the film trying to say? Does it have a message? Well, I wish I could answer that question. It seemed at first as though there was going to be some sort of social justice message going on. There was a moment or two when I was cheering the film on, thinking it was attacking religious hypocrisy. And it does, but almost on accident. There’s a story at the beginning of the movie where a Black nun laments the way she’s treated in the convent. She confesses to Sister Maria, teary-eyed: “My color, that’s my curse.” Which is true. She’s forced to make dinner for the white nuns, clear their plates, eat in a separate room, and sleep in a dirty straw bed.
So here I’m thinking that maybe Sister Maria is going to try to convince her to let Satan into her heart and the two of them are going to go on a nice little revenge spree. But, no, Sister Maria just gleefully helps the Black nun kill herself, giggling as she leaves the room where the lifeless corpse hangs. And the plot thread, which had a pretty significant amount of time devoted to it, is never brought up again.
I suppose that Martinez Solares was trying to say something about about how it’s a fool’s errand to try to deny our true nature, because it will always find a way to manifest itself. After all, the first nudity we get is during a scene where Sister Maria is doing a little old-fashioned self-flagellation. This happens just after she has a few weird thoughts about Sexy Satan. But, of course, this whipping isn’t only about punishment. It’s a BDSM ritual that Sister Maria, although she would never admit it, quite enjoys. It’s a guilt-ridden pleasure, to be sure, but so are most good things in life.
Really, though, in the end this is nunsploitation, so getting too deep with this thing, arthouse elements notwithstanding, is a tad beside the point. Everyone is either totally uncorrupted or a complete degenerate. There’s some nudity, some lesbian nuns, and some shock value. And that’s just about what most of us are looking for here anyway, right?
SATANICO PANDEMONIUM is available on Blu-ray from Mondo Macabr0, and I really should get my hands on a copy. I watched it on the Tubi app (if you haven’t checked out Tubi’s selection of low/ no-budget flicks yet, do it now!), and it looked fine, but definitely nowhere near the quality you’d get from a Blu-ray. There were some parts that were pretty pixelated, so while it didn’t look great on my living room TV at times, it would probably be just fine on a laptop or tablet.
Despite the super-uncomfortable attempted child rape scene, SATANICO PANDEMONIUM is a lot of fun. The cinematography and shot composition are top-notch, so there’s really nothing to complain about here. The script feels like it was written in ten minutes, making the thing all the more wonderfully surreal. Seriously, you might never see “brutal stabbing” as tame as you’ll see here. Just, maybe turn your head for a bit when she’s going after that kid. Jesus, that shit is seared into my delicate little brain.
Tags: Adolfo Martínez Solares, Cecilia Pezet, Delia Magaña, Enrique Rocha, Gilberto Martínez Solares, Gustavo César Carrión, Horror, Jorge Barragán, Ken Russell, Mexico, Nuns, Nunsploitation, Salma Hayek, Satan, The Devil