Plot: pious, virtuous nun is offered the temptations of the flesh by Satan.
While it was Great Britain that had the dubious honour of kicking off the nunsploitation cycle with Ken Russell’s iconoclastic The Devils (1971), it were the most devout contries of continental Europe (Spain and Italy, in particular) that gleefully embraced imitating The Exorcist (1973) and exhibited an almost religious zeal in indulging in its more sacrilegious inclinations. In France Joël Séria’s Don't Deliver Us From Evil (1971) had a dedicated segment and from there nunsploitation was the only next logical avenue. In Poland there was Walerian Borowczyk's Behind Convent Walls (1978) and Czechoslovakia’s Valerie and Her Week Of Wonders (1970) is a lot of things, but it certainly was not nunsploitation the way it was typically understood. That Mexico would end up creating one of the subgenre’s more defining and enduring works should come as no surprise. The country had a long history in horror, and it was and is both deeply superstitious and devoutly Christian. The only to surpass Satánico Pandemónium in sheer blasphemy, scorn, and irreverence was Brazilian filmmaker Juan López Moctezuma’s unparallelled masterpiece Alucarda (1977). In the company of such greatness it’s easy to forget that Italy got there earliest with The Demon (1963) preceding both The Exorcist (1973) and nunsploitation as a whole.
Gilberto Martínez Solares had a long career going all the way back to 1939 and in the six decades that he was active he directed just about every mainstream genre (romance, drama, comedy, etc) under the sun. He even helmed one or two Blue Demon and El Santo luchador movies – but none of his voluminous repertoire has attained the kind of longevity and prestige that Satánico Pandemónium has. On top of that, as near as we can tell, this was Solares’ only foray into horror. Perhaps that is why Satánico Pandemónium is filled to the brim with artful shots and visually arresting imagery. It’s always interesting when mainstream directors decide to helm a genre film. As with any production everything hinges on the lead. For that reason alone Cecilia Pezet was an interesting choice. Not in the least because she hardly ever did horror. Overflowing with enough clerical sleaze and containing enough corrupted Catholical imagery to satiate any agnostic, atheist, or anti-theist Satánico Pandemónium has lost none of its baroque charm and shock value. Even almost forty years later it’s is a towering genre achievement.
22-year-old Lutheran nun María (Cecilia Pezet) lives a virtuous and ecclesiastical life sequestered away in a Protestant convent somewhere in rural Mexico. In quiet resignaton the nuns live an impoverished life of celibacy, prayer, and contemplation. Whenever they are not being harangued or scolded, by Mother Superior (Delia Magaña) for their infractions they submit, as scripture dictates, to corporal mortification and self-flagellation. The closest thing to a friend María has is sister Caridad (Veronika Con K., as Verónica Avila). María is the youngest and described as the purest and most pious of her order. One day she's out picking flowers in a meadow when she's tempted by Luzbel (Enrique Rocha). Running away she encounters her friend Marcelo (Daniel Albertos) and helps him with feeding one of his lambs. On the way home María again is tempted by Luzbel. María tries to live a virtuous and sin-free life and it becomes increasingly difficult for her to balance the crushing weight and burden of her maidenhood with the nigh on insurmountable ballast that is her devotion to God. Matters are complicated by the fact that she’s haunted by visions of Luzbel by day and overcome by carnal lust and perverse desire at night. Sin, it seems, lurks everywhere.
After Compline Luzbel continues to seduce María. She's overcome by temptations of the mind and of the flesh. In her dwelling she's raped by a fellow nun (Verónica Rivas) or so she believes because when she comes to Luzbel’s lying on top of her. Soon sister Clemencia (Clemencia Colín) and a novice (Amparo Furstenberg) come relaying their increasing and continuing struggle with their vows and the natural inclinations that come with their age. Ever since that innocent stroll in the woods the other day María has been haunted by impure thoughts and is sometimes stricken by carnal urges of perverted desire. When Caridad commits suicide by hanging and Marcelo and his aging mother (Velia Lupercio) die under mysterious circumstances Mother Superior accuses young María of bringing sin into the convent. Forced to choose between her two masters María declares that Satan has been living inside of her and strangles the tyrannical Reverend Mother with a rope magically appearing in her possession. Surrendering to a life of blasphemy and vice María swears that if she cannot live her life in service of Christ then she’ll become an apprentice of Satan. Not only does she promise to visit heresy upon her sleepy village - she vows to bring down the convent, and if possible, the Protestant Church in its entirety, with her no matter the cost.
What could possibly be said about Cecilia Pezet in what was more or less her swansong theatrical performance? She would appear in La lucha con la pantera (1975) afterwards and here she’s, thankfully, cast against type for once. This, more than anything, served to amplify her performance manifold. Pezet’s portrayal of María is one of quiet agitation, understated misanthropy, and (during the third act) violent homicidal retribution. It’s at least as powerful, by sheer contrast alone, as Jeanne Goupil’s youthful exuberance and wide-eyed malevolence in Don't Deliver Us From Evil (1971) and Tina Romero’s legendary hysterical, maniacal, hair-raising performance in and as Alucarda (1977). Likewise does Enrique Rocha take great pleasure in his role as Luzbel who introduces María to the pleasures of the flesh and whose corrupting influence will eventually bring down the Church. Delia Magaña was one of the great divas of Mexican cinema and theatre who made a name for herself for her many comedic roles. Magaña attended cocktail parties with Charles Chaplin and Mary Pickford. Verónika con K. was a singer and soap opera regular who just as frequently worked as a television presenter. The remainder of the cast were either enthusiast first-timers while others experienced brief careers that didn’t really go anywhere.
And who could possibly forget Mexican bombshell Salma Hayek as Satánico Pandemónium writhing seductively in Robert Rodriguez’ beloved genre-hybrid From Dusk Till Dawn (1996) where she was dressed in little more than that tiny bikini, feathery headgear, and a slithering snake? If anyone reintroduced Solares’ masterpiece to a mainstream general audience, this was the where and the when. Rodriguez grew up on and in the grindhouse and he has been a staunch defender of exploitation cinema no matter how much Hollywood tries to force him into a mainstream direction. What better way to pay tribute to Mexico's greatest exploitation's than to have the latest superstar proudly bearing its name? Satánico Pandemónium was one of those legendary milestones, that there was something far darker brooding within the collective subconscious. The time of the Universal inspired gothics of the prior decade now was very well in the past. Like its Spanish counterpart Mexican horror is at its best when it bathes in that decaying, mildewy atmosphere and is unafraid to lay fire upon the Church and its adherents. Satánico Pandemónium has something for everybody, and a whole new generation of horror fans should be exposed to its malefic glory and dripping misanthropy.