School of the Holy Beast (DVD)

Starring Yumi Takigawa, Emiko Yamauchi, Yayoi Watanabe, Ryouko Ima

Directed by Norifumi Suzuki

Yumi Takigawa, during an interview on Cult Epics release of the breathtaking School of the Holy Beast, goes into detail on her reaction to being offered the lead role, how she knew hers was a role that she should turn down, and how she was eventually coaxed into accepting the part. As filming began, Yumi Takigawa became aware that the screenplay called for her to be naked. Apparently in her naiveté, Ms. Takigawa did not look over the entire script, and this development was an unwelcome bit of news to her. We are not talking about a bit of nudity here or there, thrown in for artistic taste. No, School is pure exploitation goodness, and the nudity in it is rampant just as ample as the scenes of torture and rape that round out this delirious descent into debauchery on digital disc.

School of the Holy Beast is buffet of beastly beauty. A Japanese film about a The Sacred Heart Convent where young girls are kept in check by a ruthless, frustrated group of superior Nuns. The orderly regime of the abbey is based off the sanctity of observing three disciplines: Adultery, Murder, and Thievery. Explained as being punishable by extreme methods used to scour the soul free from soil (Yea right), and the flesh off your hot Asian bod as well. Adultery is discussed as being with or even looking at another woman in a lecherous sort of way. Well, if that doesn’t let you know right off the bat where the film is headed, this is definitely the wrong genre, and possibly zip code, for you to be visiting.

Yumi Takigawa plays Maya Takigawa, a young woman who voluntarily goes into the confines of the convent in order to search for answers about her young mother who died within its walls when she was very young. The character of Maya comes off as the Asian equivalent of Laura Gemser’s Emmanuelle. She is beautiful, sexually liberated, and very tough. Takigawa gives off a stare of intensity during School’s more ferocious scenes that seem to borrow the eyes right out of Gemser’s own head. Interestingly enough, as explained in the interview included on the disc, Takigawa says that in some of the scenes, her looks of conviction were in essence anger at the director for what he was making her do for the scene. Good thing she was pissed, it comes across very well in the film, playing into the resolve of the character against the plotting and deceptive nuns.

The film uses the older, more controlling nuns in disturbing and comedic forms. As sadistic as some of the tortures that the lesser nuns must endure, the film does make as much light of the double standards set forth by the nun-repressors. Even a rape scene with one of the superior nuns is quickly turned into a much more lighthearted affair as she ravenously welcomes her attacker to her much ignored bed with quick and unsettling zeal.

Nunsploitation is a small sub-genre of exploitation filmmaking, and usual fare during a nunsploitation film is Sapphic desire and sexual frustration due to the taboo that is set upon such inter-female relations. As with any other exploitative genre where you house people together and a hierarchy is formed, such as jails or experiments, bad things always happen. These films are all about extremes and what people do to survive them. The glance they give into the human psyche cannot be ignored, and definitely make a statement against ever keeping humans together in confined spaces. In short, sorry Perry, we will not make great pets.

“God gave us the whip”.

And boy do these girls like to use them. What separates School of the Holy Beast from just being a standard “girls in habits with whips” movie is the composition that is achieved in each shot. The eye of director Norifumi Suzuki stains this film with a striking visual pedigree. Each scene is painstakingly staged, and the production has the flavor of Hammer Studios with a dash of Suspiria’s eye for color. There is a resilient richness of color present, without the overwrought feeling as with Argento’s film. School feels like it’s trying to be something, but maybe doesn’t know quite what. With some films, this lack of direction of style would be a muddled mess. Director Suzuki keeps it all reigned in, creating an offbeat inner world.

When discussing the aesthetic quality of this picture, a pause must be taken to discuss the centerpiece of the film: The 13th Punishment. An inquisitioned Maya is bound in brambles covered in thorns. Her naked torso being cut with each deliberate pull on the vines by the Elder Sisters. Maya is being asked questions that have only one right answer, an answer that would be her death for sure. She must admit to wrong-doing. Maya’s unwillingness to “cooperate” forces the Nuns to decide to treat her to the “13th punishment”. A flock of Nuns then begin to beat Maya’s nude face and torso with bouquets of long stemmed roses. The floral fury, tattered teats, and bright blood all give way to an explosion of petals and pain. Suzuki decides to film portions of this in slow motion, allowing the subject to be studied during the attack. In the end, good lighting, subject framing, and attention to composition (red blood, red petals) keep this scene from devolving into the silliness is had the potential to be.

Included with the film are two interviews: a discussion with a Japanese expert in Sexploitation or “Pink” films, and the 17 minute interview with Yumi Takigawa. The real treat is Miss Takigawa. The whole conversation surrounding the movie, how it was made, and what her feelings on it are most interesting. For the most part, she seems at a loss to explain the movie and its popularity. She even gives off the slightest notion that she would not be wounded if the movie just disappeared once and for all. Don’t get me wrong, she is thankful of the boost it gave to her career, but she struggles with the notion that the film could be seen as anything other than exploitive trash. The art of it is lost upon her.

Exploitation is a tricky thing. It dances between two differing worlds: genre films and pornography. Differing opinions will make the case for either, and a set of rules will never be agreed upon to encompass the whole thing. I guess in the end, films like School of the Holy Beast could serve as a catalyst to propel the sub-genre of exploitation out of the gutters. Even more so, if other films like School were given a fair chance and enjoyed for the reasons that make them so memorable, not simply dismissed as trash, maybe all horror sub-genres could be given a chance at higher levels of appreciation as well.

3 ½ out of 5

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