In Netflix’s Sister Death (Hermana Muerte), Paco Plaza delivers a thrilling prequel to his 2017 chiller Veronica.
Halloween is around the corner, and streamers want to fill their catalogs with plenty of horror classics. But what about their original works? Outside of the horror-focused Shudder and Screambox, there aren’t many original genre pictures arriving from these streaming platforms this year. Once again, Netflix partnered with the groundbreaking Spanish genre filmmaker Paco Plaza to deliver a prequel to his film Veronica titled Sister Death (Hermana Muerte). With a darker atmosphere to match its setting, Plaza offers a retro complement to the original with a simple story about religion and possession with a slight nunsploitation twist. While Sister Death may not be as good as the 2017 film, there’s still plenty to enjoy in this entertaining chiller.
Sister Death is divided into chapters, all demonstrating the stages in which the film’s horrors rise through its runtime, as well as the main character’s gloomy arc. Paco Plaza decides to introduce the audience to the film’s world with some fictitious black-and-white footage from Spain during the late 1930s. The footage consists of a small town surrounding a small child with their crucifixes. The youngling signals to the sky like a divine power has possessed her. What has made these people view her as a holy figure? Is she a miracle worker or a witch of some kind? Possibly, this is all a hoax plotted by her family’s parents. No matter the state of this religious bond, the town folk perceive her as some kind of savior.
She’s the one keeping everyone at ease. Her presence is that of a martyr, hence the first chapter titled “The Saint Child”. But that same name refers to another youngling, one that is lingering around the shadows of the film’s setting. Ten years have passed since those introductory events, and the child is now a woman named Sister Narcisa (Aria Bedmar), making her way to a convent. She has been allowed to serve the lord and teach the young girls who stay there. Sister Narcisa is still held in very high regard by the local nuns and is seen as an icon of hope in this small town. But she doesn’t seem to remember much from those religious childhood experiences. During a confession, Sister Narcisa tells the convent’s father that she is unprepared to teach there.
She doubts her obligation to fill the role of the “saint child”. Sister Narcisa was almost obligated to help everyone who went from afar to see her in the past. He mentions that she will slowly find her footing in this new journey. But what happens when she begins to experience some outworldly presence? Strange occurrences transition into disturbing situations that torment the young nun, all coinciding with the cursed halls of this convent.
Haunting its inhabitants during the sun-lit days and hollow nights, this setting becomes a playground for the ghosts of the setting and Narcica’s past running amok. We see glimpses of these devilish presences through ways both reliant on the possession film tropes and haunting in the way we know Paco Plaza, at his best, could concoct. As Narcisa questions her faith or thinks about the exploitative nature of her role as the “saint child”, she learns more about the brutal history accompanying the convent, leading to the events that occurred decades later in Veronica.
After seeing the aforementioned film, I never thought those characters would be explored again. Paco Plaza seemed so intrigued by Sister Narcisa that he decided to make a film centered around her. But the problem with Sister Death is that, without its predecessor, the film can’t stand on its own, especially since Veronica is the superior picture between the two by all standards. Even if Sister Death is somewhat Paco Plaza’s less creative affair, using more films as reference points than being reliant on his ingenuity, he manages to create some horrifying sequences and images in his latest work. The first two chapters (or acts) are most straightforward and trope-riddled, even though they are still engaging due to the chilling performance by Aria Bedmar and Paco Plaza’s directorial vision within the horror genre.
You get to see some of the same old sequences where the protagonist slowly realizes that the convent is haunted, the psychological warfare between faith and disbelief, as well as some scenes where we see evil cackling nuns. It seems inevitable that all of these types of horror movies contain such moments. But, since Sister Death is being handled by one of Spain’s best modern genre filmmakers, these scenes are primarily compelling instead of bothersome. The camera focuses on Bedmar’s face, allowing her expressions to fuel the atmosphere and make the audience focus on her instead of the cliches. Things get even more scary and fascinating in the third act, which is, by far, the most creative and artistic.
All of the secrets of the convent are revealed, so Paco Plaza gives the film a slight nunsploitation edge that helps shine a light on the human side of these supernatural horrors. The only thing bringing this segment of the film down is its electronic and bass-heavy soundtrack for its horror set-pieces, which doesn’t fit with the atmosphere Plaza is curating. It seems interesting that Paco Plaza has always found a way to do something different within his filmography. And even though Sister Death is a prequel, plenty of stylistic choices show us another side of the Spanish filmmaker, even if he’s using many genre tropes. Nevertheless, if you need a new movie to watch during your Halloween horror binge, Netflix has you covered with Sister Death.
Sister Death (Hermana Muerte) will be streaming globally on Netflix from October 27, 2023.