On her last day before entering the St. Clore's Convent, luscious young beauty Yumi Takigawa deeply inhales her last breath of freedom, capping a night of sinful '70s pleasures (arcades, discos, hockey, etc.) with a bout of casual sex. Turns out she needn't have bothered: The outside world knows no depravity like a convent full of hot, sexually repressed Japanese nuns. Forbidden fruit is devoured so ravenously throughout Norifumi Suzuki's 1974 "nunsploitation" film School Of The Holy Beast that the word "blasphemous" never seems sufficiently powerful to describe it—and this is before God is called out for Auschwitz and the atomic bomb. Comparisons to Roger Corman and the Marquis de Sade are unavoidable, but give Suzuki some credit, because this movie has it all: Topless sisters whipping themselves and each other, soft-focus lesbian trysts, vicious catfights, a rapist priest, and a healthy balance of voyeurism, masochism, torture, blackmail, and murder. It's the kind of environment where a nun can say, "Let's strip to help clear the suspicion," and nobody bats an eye.
A cult classic by design, School Of The Holy Beast has the same agenda of other exploitation films—to titillate and offend, preferably at the same time—but Suzuki isn't some garden-variety exploiter. Shooting in widescreen with sumptuous colors and often striking composition, Suzuki doesn't transcend the silly material, but he luxuriates in it beautifully. With apologies due to Sam Fuller's Shock Corridor, the film follows Takigawa as she offers herself to the convent in order to investigate her late mother's mysterious death on the premises. Joining the other "assistant nuns," most of whom are dropouts shipped off to the convent for reformation, Takigawa pokes around the place looking for answers, but before long, she gets into trouble. And trouble at St. Clore's means a trip to the Persecution Room, where a coven of stern-faced mother superiors devise a variety of sadomasochistic reprisals.
The biggest setpiece in School Of The Holy Beast finds Takigawa naked in the Persecution Room, bound across the chest with thorny vines as a succession of nuns take turns whipping her face with the prickly stems of rose bouquets. Though the film is essentially a primped-up Corman women-in-prison opus, scenes like this one are perfectly rendered: The ominous formation of perpetrators, the look of agony and ecstasy on Takigawa's face, the striking reds of rose petals falling as blood trickles down her body. Suzuki occasionally pauses for a few potshots at Christian hypocrisy, but he doesn't take religion seriously enough to deliver any lasting blows. At bottom, he cares most about turning people on with high-toned naughtiness, and he succeeds to a shameful degree.