Religious horror is a genre that captures not just connections with the divine but also the way in which the sacred is used to control and restrict the profane. Sister Death does this by looking at a nunnery in post-war Spain that has seen its fair share of violence. But their resilience hasn’t fueled empathy. Directed by Paco Plaza and written by Jorge Guerricaechevarría, Sister Death is a Spanish horror film that embraces the hypocrisies of religion and the trauma of being a woman within Catholic walls.
Now a school, the nunnery becomes home to Narcisa (Aria Bedmar), a young novice with supernatural powers who is on her way to earning her habit. When she arrives at the former convent to become a teacher, she’s ready to embrace God. But when strange events and increasingly disturbing situations begin to crop up and torment her, she has a choice to make: Find out why and solve the mystery, or believe the Mother Superior (Maru Valdivielso) and accept herself as cursed. Refusing to remain a vessel for the haunting, Narcisa begins to investigate the skein of secrets that surround the convent as they grow to terrorize the inhabitants.
Sister Death is terrifying because of how minimal its scares are. The team behind the film uses extensive amounts of practical effects that stand out in the stripped-down walls of the convent. With no luxuries, stone walls, bare floors, and hardly any lighting, the convent is a blank slate to craft dread.
Using the emptiness within the walls to craft a loneliness that cuts deeply, Narcisa’s experience as the epicenter of events grows increasingly isolated. As her solitude grows and the Mother Superior makes it clear that Narcisa isn’t welcome, the tone of the film flips. A once curious Narcisa tries to just acquiesce and ignore the supernatural happenings, telling the young student she grows close to that it is not real, only to find out that it very much is.
Sister Death is as beautiful as it is scary. Using beautiful cinematography and precise framing, the visual narrative of the film stands out. While the dialogue in the convent twists the tense knife, the visuals of the film place it firmly at your chest. This only intensifies the closer Narcisa gets to discovering the truth, making the last act of the film a loud and terrifying end.
As Narcisca discovers the sins and violence committed in the war against the nuns, she also learns of the violence the women have perpetuated in their walls after the soldiers leave. The sisters have undergone great trauma, but that in no way gives them the right to enact that on someone else in the name of God. Hiding their sins, the nuns of the convent have ignored them, prayed them away, and have moved on. But the pain lives in the walls, and when Narcisa cathartically releases it, the story takes off.
Visually stunning, Sister Death captures religious trauma in an emotionally stunning capacity. It’s no secret that when nuns were pregnant, either by choice or against their will, the Church and their sisters didn’t put their well-being or their children first (even to this day). That real violence is the foundation of Sister Death, and in its fictional take on that trauma, the film makes a scathing critique of the past and aims to change the future. Beautiful and macabre, Sister Death continues the stellar track record for Spanish horror originals on Netflix.
Sister Death is streaming now on Netflix.
Beautiful and macabre, Sister Death continues the stellar track record for Spanish horror originals on Netflix.