From the very first moments (starting off with a much more fitting 'medieval' score than THE DEMONS' eclectic if messy soundtrack), the film conveys both its seriousness of intent (neither THE BLOODY JUDGE  nor THE DEMONS could be taken as anything but fanciful peeks into this controversial yet intriguing time-frame) and its artistic bent (certainly among Franco's most gorgeous-looking films, evident even in the VHS copy I viewed). The film is very well directed for the most part: stylized but highly effective framing (notably the shot where William Berger is forcing himself onto Susan Hemingway) and positioning of actors (the orgy where Hemingway is again raped, now by Herbert Fux's devil incarnate, while all the time her head is resting on Ana Zanatti's shoulder, who seems to be getting her sexual kicks by proxy!). The nick-of-time ending is effectively handled as well, especially its fading out on the two villains' apprehension leaving their eventual fate, as it were, to each and every member of the audience!
The acting of the three principals is terrific:
· Susan Hemingway manages both the character's inherent innocence as well as her determination to put a stop to all the evil at the Abbey (I quite liked the fact that when she finally escapes, we are not shown how she achieves this, and also the matter-of-fact yet rather moving way her 'love letters' are eventually picked up) [Brief parenthesis: I look forward to seeing more of her in Franco's SINFONIA EROTICA (1979), paired with the equally scrumptious Lina Romay who, incidentally, appeared in a remake of LOVE LETTERS OF A Portuguese NUN made by Jorge Grau in 1978!]
· William Berger as the sickest priest ever to hit the screen (far more damaging than the befuddled monk played by Jack Palance in MARQUIS DE SADE'S JUSTINE ), who immediately demonstrates he is adept at persuading virtually anyone to do his bidding (the calm way he haggles Hemingway's poor and impressionable mother out of her savings at the beginning of the film, for instance, but also the girl herself during a humiliating confession scene that just about manages not to topple over into unnecessary grossness and emerges, in fact, as one of the film's highlights)
· Ana Zanatti, however, matches Berger with her proud (and evidently possessed) Mother Superior-cum-High Priestess, creating what is perhaps one of Franco's most fascinating female villains
What I couldn't quite figure out initially about LOVE LETTERS OF A Portuguese NUN is its apparently schizophrenic nature: while it takes the utmost care in establishing period atmosphere and the mood of specific scenes, and doing so with great subtlety (as in the almost subliminal but potentially repugnant shot where Hemingway's face is hit by a rush of semen), the film then goes overboard with its frequent depiction of sexual activity among the nuns and their unmitigated devotion to Satan (as if the agenda of this so-called Abbey hadn't been made blatant already!). That said, the scene where Zanatti painfully confirms her 'faith' (which reminded me of a similarly excruciating moment in the last of the Hammer horror films, Peter Sykes' contemporaneous TO THE DEVIL A DAUGHTER ) is well done as are, in fact, the various tortures to which lovely Susan Hemingway is subjected for her defiance of the 'house' rules. [In any case, Francesco Cesari once again came to the rescue for me, putting the sex scenes in their proper context which is that, in their pursuit to 'demonize' sexuality, the Catholic Church has rendered the Devil a sexual object leading to a general perversion in sexuality which 'disease' actually sprang from within the convents themselves! Apart from this, Francesco has rightly observed that, before we even get to see how truly evil they are, the characters of Father Vincent and Mother Alma are themselves depicted in the film as wretched human beings indicating, in this way, that they are as much victims of this same culture as anyone else!]
I wouldn't mind buying the film on DVD (in view of the proper Widescreen ratio and VIP's restoration efforts) though the price-tag of the Swiss DVD is set rather too highly for my tastes; I only hope, therefore, that Anchor Bay UK (a DVD is planned for a February 2004 release) can pull this one intact from under the BBFC's scrutiny
Much as Franco's THE BLOODY JUDGE was made in the wake of the classic WITCHFINDER GENERAL (1968), his THE DEMONS and LOVE LETTERS OF A Portuguese NUN emerged from the relative success and eventual cult-status of Ken Russell's original 'nunsploitation' epic THE DEVILS (1971); I wouldn't say that Franco necessarily did a better job of it but, thankfully, his efforts did not prove so hysterical as Russell's either! (Actually, watching these two films has reminded me that I've yet to pick up Walerian Borowczyk's similar BEHIND CONVENT WALLS (1977) on R2 DVD from Nouveaux Pictures.)
P.S. The film's 'message' is still timely, especially since here in Malta a sex-scandal was recently unearthed involving priests' abusing of their young male charges(!); incidentally, the religious order involved is affiliated with the Secondary school which my brother and I attended between 1987 and 1992 come to think of it, once we even spent a whole week-end at their convent!!