[REC] is one of the most influential horror films of the last few decades. It was released during the peak of the found-footage trend, and directors Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza were applauded for the efficient use of a single location, drawing sincere performances from the cast, and delivering a bone-chilling conclusion to the grueling ordeal. And the movie has managed to stand the test of time, especially after the COVID-19 pandemic, as people could relate to the experience of battling something unknown and infectious from the confines of their apartments. That said, Plaza failed to follow it up with something substantial. The [REC] sequels weren’t good. Verónica made some ripples, especially after its Netflix release. Eye for an Eye and The Grandmother were, for the lack of a better word, fine. However, Sister Death is a slam dunk for Plaza and a frontrunner for one of the best horror films of the year.
Plaza’s Sister Death (originally titled Hermana Muerte), which has been written by Jorge Guerricaechevarría, opens in 1939, where a girl is seen to be the center of Christian rituals as she serves as the bridge between the divine and humanity. The narrative moves forward in time by 10 years when that girl, Narcisa, returns to her hometown and joins a school for young girls to become nuns. The school used to be a convent, but it was evacuated during the Spanish Civil War. While most of the local nuns decided not to return because of the horrifying experience, Sister Sagrario and Sister Julia chose to come back and run the institution with the help of nuns hailing from all around the country. Narcisa is filling in for Sister Inés, who has apparently left to look after her elderly parents. But as soon as Narcisa steps into the room that was once occupied by Inés and she sees the chair rattle in front of her very eyes, hears someone knocking on her door, and comes across a hangman sketch, it becomes clear that Inés has been forced to leave due to something supernatural. And, despite Narcisa’s efforts to live a holy life, it seems like she is about to deal with something satanic.
Sister Death is a prequel to Verónica as much as The Nun movies are a prequel to The Conjuring films. By that, I mean, it tries to answer a question that maybe no one asked: how can Sister Death “see” even though she is technically blind? But the good thing is that screenwriter Jorge doesn’t spend too much time fleshing out that answer. It’s a horror movie. The audience knows that anything can happen. So, instead of focusing on the reason behind Narcisa’s “powers,” he chooses to focus on what she’s capable of doing with them, and it’s pretty awesome. Without revealing too much, all I will say is that Narcisa becomes the personification of consequences. She shows that time isn’t a straight line; it is a circle, and one has to reap what they’ve sown, even if they’ve buried it under various layers of religious snobbery. The movie questions why a religious institution has to be built (or rebuilt) on a corrosive lie, especially when the event that they are lying about is merely the result of a war crime. The building itself wears its scars as a badge of honor, but for some reason, Julia and Sagrario are unable to do the same, and this hypocrisy has widespread repercussions.
Sister Death cites the Spanish Civil War as the root of all the destruction, literal and metaphorical, that has happened at the convent. If you go into the details about what happened between the Republicans and the Nationalists, you’ll come across the attacks on the church and the destruction of statues and various other historical artifacts conducted by “the revolutionaries,” which is something that Paco and Jorge cite pretty explicitly in the film. If you study the present-day politics of Spain, you’ll find a direct line between the party in power and the aforementioned Spanish Civil War. Hence, much like every film that digs up historical atrocities, the war crimes depicted in Sister Death can seem like the filmmakers’ attempt to remind audiences what the country has faced and what they should do to avoid something similar in the future. However, since that can become a little confusing, Paco and Jorge state that, no matter who is on the “correct” side of war, women have to bear the brunt of it. And due to the very patriarchal definitions of shame and piousness, women have to go to some extreme lengths to preserve their dignity. So, the insidious cycle of idiotic men partaking in battles and women suffering because of it has to stop.
Sister Death is one of the most beautiful-looking films of the year. Daniel F. Abelló’s cinematography, Guillermo de la Cal and Martí Roca’s editing, the production design by Laia Ateca, the costumes by Vinyet Escobar, the sets, the make-up design, and Paco Plaza’s vision all come together so well. The texture, the lighting, and the framing of each shot in the movie genuinely look like a gorgeous painting, which is why when it’s disrupted by something gory and disgusting, you react very strongly to it. Yes, there are human lives at stake, but Paco tries to present the beauty and serenity of the institution as something that should be protected, as it is a home for said humans. However, he doesn’t shy away from the fact that when any building, regardless of its religious inclinations, is being corroded by what lies at its foundation, it needs a shakeup. In addition to all that, the sound design of the film is exquisite. I think it’s an aspect of horror films that is often overlooked because we take “creepy sounds” for granted. But it’s a hard thing to perfect, especially in a film that is largely silent and doesn’t have a ton of jump scares. I have a feeling that many won’t vibe with Mikel Salas’ music, but I loved the mix of orchestral tunes and the comparatively modern synth beats. In addition to all that, the film features some impeccable VFX and special effects.
When it comes to the performances in Sister Death, Aria Bedmar overshadows everyone as Narcisa. Initially, it seems like a typical “fish out of the water” act, but with each passing minute, it becomes clear that she knows more and is experiencing more than anyone in the convent. Her depiction of suffering, self-doubt, and resilience is palpable. Her chemistry with the kids is so organic and sweet that it makes you wish that things don’t go horribly wrong and that Narcisa gets to mentor these children properly and overcomes her demons. However, Bedmar’s earsplitting, guttural scream cements the fact that this is not that kind of movie, and heads are going to roll in the bloodiest fashion imaginable. Maru Valdivielso accurately shows how hollow Sister Julia’s sternness actually is. Luisa Merelas makes you pity the Mother Superior. Chelo Vivares sends chills down your spine in that one scene involving “specialties.” The way her voice echoes through the room and the manner in which she starts cackling are haunting. All the child actors are amazing. Sara and Olimpia Roch get the most screen time, and even though I’m a little confused about the conclusion of Rosa’s arc, I have no doubts about Sara’s acting prowess. Meanwhile, Almudena Amor doesn’t have a lot of screen time, but her impact is huge. So, all in all, that’s some great casting done by Arantza Vélez and Paula Cámara.
Sister Death is a perfect Halloween-season watch. It is heavy on the atmosphere. Paco Plaza tricks you into thinking that he’s going to hold back on the scares because of the mellow first half. But as soon as the second half kicks in, he brings out the fireworks, sometimes quite literally. It is one of the most gorgeous-looking horror films I have come across recently, which is a compliment that we can’t usually bestow upon horror films very often, especially due to the bad lighting choices. I think I can watch endless hours of frames conjured by Plaza, Abelló, and the rest of the team. Aria Bedmar has established herself as a “scream queen,” and I can’t wait to see more of her in the horror genre. In addition to all that, the film’s anti-war theme will probably motivate you to read up on the history of Spain, which is always a win, because there’s a lot one can learn from the past and apply to the present so that the future is bright and peaceful.