Sister Death is a Spanish-language horror movie on Netflix, following a young novitiate arriving at a convent rebuilt after the devastation of World War II to serve as a school for girls in late-’40s Spain. Sister Narcisa’s nagging doubts about dedicating herself to God as a nun are both reinforced and challenged when she attempts to help a student plagued by strange visions.
SISTER DEATH: STREAM IT OR SKIP IT?
The Gist: Sister Narcisa (Aria Bedmar) arrives at a Spanish convent a decade after gaining notoriety as a little girl who supposedly saw a vision of the Virgin Mary. Her reputation precedes her, meaning that the sisters are all too willing to rush her into her vows with God; frankly, she’d prefer to take her time and pay her dues, because she’s not entirely sure she wants to commit to that nun life. In the meantime, she begins teaching at the convent’s school, which also busies its students with what seems like an inordinate amount of chores. Though Sister Narcisa senses some supernatural goings-on in her surroundings – a piece of furniture that seems to move on its own; some bloody visions that may or may not be hallucinations – it becomes clear that one of her students is experiencing more, and she attempts to help this troubled girl, and see what she sees. In the process, Sister Narcisa uncovers the usual dark secrets that plague horror-movie convents.
What Movies Will It Remind You Of?: The most obvious connection for many horror fans will be the Nun movies spun off from the Conjuring Universe, especially with The Nun II still playing in a few theaters (and also streaming on Max, just in time for Halloween) – and the fact that Sister Death is also part of a film series, functioning as a mostly-standalone prequel to the director’s horror film Verónica. Given Sister Narcisa’s name, cinephiles may also think back to the 1947 classic Black Narcissus, though that psychological thriller lacks this one’s supernatural trappings.
Performance Worth Watching: Aria Bedmar, who has previously worked primarily in TV, makes an empathetic heroine as Sister Narcisa, striking a relatable balance between belief and doubt. She also has terrific hair.
Memorable Dialogue: The movie’s image speak louder than its dialogue, never moreso than when Sister Narcisa coughs up a series of bloody eyeballs.
Sex and Skin: Nun such luck. Though toying with religious imagery and settings has become routine in modern horror, movies like this tend to shy away from full-on nunsploitation; only violence (including a rape) here, no genuine sexuality or desire. In other words, the filmmakers remain very much out of the habit, which means the nuns remain very much in theirs.
Our Take: Director Paco Plaza is probably best-known for the [REC] series of found-footage zombie movies. (The first was remade in the U.S. as the pretty good Quarantine.) Sister Death’s stylizations are more staid by comparison: It’s shot in a 1.33:1 aspect ratio that recalls movies made in the time period it depicts, and Plaza often uses the halls, doorways, and shadows of the old convent to narrow the frame even more, creating windows within windows and a cloistered sense of menace. The film’s mood matches Sister Narcisa’s unease; she’s treated as a godsend and sign of youthful revitalization in the Catholic faith, while secretly doubting whether or not she deserves this designation, or is even cut out for the nunnery (though she’s pious enough to give self-flagellation and fasting the old convent try). The most innovative aspect of her conflict (which is otherwise not too dissimilar from Taissa Farmiga’s character in the Nun movies) is a scene with the grimly ironic spectacle of Sister Narcisa attempting to see a ghostly figure that her most troubled student is describing to her. Though the novitiate has experienced other ghastly visions and nightmares during her time at the convent, she’s unable to immediately visualize this ghost, of sorts, haunting the student. That figure connects back to wartime atrocities that might challenge the church’s own practices, giving the movie an interestingly thorny take on how institutions can undermine the very faith they’re supposed to help preserve.
The rest of the story is pretty standard, at least on paper: Plucky nun investigates creepy goings-on and finds a horrific backstory that explains them. But Plaza keeps the film moving along without rushing it. This is a creepy-imagery horror movie more than a cheap jump-scare machine, and all the better for it; though the Nun movies have some great set pieces and atmosphere, this one has a more grounded sense of tension that its distant American cousins lack. Funnily enough, Sister Death is part of its own little cinematic universe; it’s actually a prequel to Plaza’s 2017 horror film Verónica (also on Netflix); an older version of Sister Narcisa is a supporting character in the earlier film. Luckily, only the film’s final scene seems likely to cause those unfamiliar with the 1991-set earlier film to cock their heads in confusion. (I can testify to this firsthand, because I didn’t know this was connected to another movie until it ended, and I thoroughly enjoyed it anyway.)
Our Call: Whether or not you’ve seen Verónica, Sister Death is an efficient and well-made horror picture. STREAM IT, especially if you’re running low on horror after a month of scary-movie marathons.