Oh, Sister!: Just in time for the holidays, female mischief with ‘Red Pill’ and ‘Benedetta’

Tonya Pinkins is a much-lauded stage actor who also performs in films. She was evidently so impressed by Jordan Peele’s Get Out a few years ago that she and a few of her colleagues—including Ruben Blades, Pinkins’ costar in the TV series Fear the Walking Dead—decided to make a similar socially conscious shocker called Red Pill. It didn’t exactly work out.

Cassandra (Pinkins), Rocky (Blades) and four other middle-aged Northern liberals drive to Virginia in the fall of 2020, to work for progressive candidates in the election. On the road, the out-of-towners notice a few things that give them the willies, such as a sign proclaiming “No Niggers, No Jews, No Imigrants”—it’s misspelled—and the disconcerting spectacle of the little community’s white women standing on their front lawns in grim array, wearing all-black outfits with a strange red symbol on the front.

Before long—in fact before any other characters or subplots can be introduced—the six unsuspecting Yankees are subjected to the sort of terror ordeal familiar to anyone who has looked at a youth-market horror movie in the past 30 years: the “cabin in the woods” scenario. Something out there is trying to kill them, and they fall off one by one. Who’s behind all this?

Could it be Mercy (Catherine Curtin), a local woman who likes to wear a bird costume and conduct bizarre, white-supremacist rituals in the woods, during times when she and her neighbors are not kidnapping and torturing people of color? Hmmm … perhaps. Writer-director Pinkins is obviously sincere in her efforts to vilify hatred and help make the world safer for everyone. But if she’s serious about having a horror flick do the heavy lifting for her message, maybe she should closely study the work of Peele—or George Romero, for that matter—before starting out. To get a firm grasp on the stylistic touches and other fine points. Just a thought.

Dutch international filmmaker Paul Verhoeven is well acquainted with bizarre storytelling tricks. He’s the brain behind Total Recall, Robocop, Showgirls and Basic Instinct—the one with Sharon Stone’s full-frontal exhibitionism. The problem with Verhoeven is usually which story he chooses in the first place, not necessarily the way he tells it. Take his latest, Benedetta, an exaggerated gals-on-a-rampage historical drama set inside a 17th-century convent. It’s adapted from a novel by Judith C. Brown titled Immodest Acts: The Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renaissance Italy. So, right away we see what we’re up against.

Rich-man’s daughter Benedetta—played as an adult by voluptuous Virginie Efira—gets locked up inside the convent as a child and grows more rebellious as she matures, especially when she joins forces with a naughty novice, the wanton street-urchin Bartolomea (Daphne Patakia). Despite the harsh religious environment and the antagonism of the Abbess (Charlotte Rampling), Benedetta and Bartolomea glory in blasphemy and hanky-panky. Their sensual pranks are accompanied by much unexplained phenomena: snakes, stigmata, nightmares of rape, a bubonic-plague epidemic, toppled statuary and even an inquisition by a horny bishop (Lambert Wilson). The randy nuns get blamed for everything, of course, opening the door for further sado-masochistic kinkiness, of the torture variety. Any resemblance to Ken Russell’s The Devils, Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal or Suzuki Norifumi’s fetish-filled Japanese pinku hair-raiser The Transgressor—a.k.a. School of the Holy Beast—is probably inescapable.

Director/co-writer Verhoeven is undoubtedly aware of the rich European artistic tradition of satirizing religion—particularly the hierarchical Roman Catholic Church, with its history of cynical hypocrisy—by means of sex. Just ask Luis Buñuel. Benedetta arrives at the convent as a devout young innocent but finds contradictions everywhere she looks. Sample aphorisms: “Intelligence can be dangerous” and “It may be vain and useless, but I have devoted my life to it.” By the time the movie ends, the joke is on Verhoeven.Red Pill begins streaming Dec. 3.
Benedetta is now streaming.

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