The way in which “Nor’easter” cleverly uses The Sign of the Cross is ingeniously subversive. Each snippet shown to us, the TV viewing audience, is layered with multiple meanings. The first snippet we get is Nero’s cackling face, super-imposed upon a city going up – or down – in flames. “Burn, Rome! Burn!” Laughton is literally gay and flaming. Of course, this is a historical reference: the whole "Nero fiddled while Rome burned" thing – a legend that’s become a metaphor for any great civilization in decline, distracting itself with diversion and blame-shifting instead of dealing with its cancers. We cut to Dr. Thredson informing Lana that when he went to find her lover, Wendy, at their home, he found evidence that suggested Bloody Face – slayer of women; male hatred for women made monstrously incarnate -- had killed her. As the other inmates (and Sister Mary) try to shush Lana and Thredson – their urgent chatter of real issues is distracting them from the movie! – we cut back to the screen, where Nero is Bond-villain conspiring to pin his failures and corruption on the Christian minority and manipulate the pagan majority into destroying them. We then cut back to Thredson, who is fretting the implication of his discovery -- Bloody Face is still at large – and cynically assuming that telling the cops would be pointless. Re-opening the case and digging deeper for the truth would mean igniting a new round of destabilizing panic, not to mention admitting they were wrong to arrest Kit Walker. Lana asks Thredson is he still thinks Kit is guilty. Thredson says he isn’t sure anymore. Wanting to track down Wendy and save her, if possible, Lana realizes she needs to escape, ASAP. As she does, we cut back to the screen, and see one of the scenes that was removed from The Sign of the Cross after The Production Code went into effect in 1936: Claudette Colbert bathing topless in a tub of ass’s milk, beckoning another woman to join her, wink-wink, nudge-nudge. (“You’re a butterfly with the sting of a wasp,” Colbert flirts. “Take off your clothes and get in here and tell me all about it!”) Lana excuses herself, telling Thredson: "It's really not appropriate for me to be seeing this, considering my ‘condition.’ Sister Jude will understand.” So do we. Lana sneaks past Frank, who’s too busy leering at the girl-on-girl action to notice, anyway. (I find it funny -- if weird -- that the archdiocese lent Sister Jude a pre-Code, uncensored copy of The Sign of The Cross.)
The interplay between Lana-Thredson and The Cross forges an implicit link between the now dominant Christian-Catholic culture and the Others it demonizes/marginalizes. Equality and justice for all requires institutions and individuals to become enlightened and empathetic, and to repent and atone as needed. Sister Jude seems spiraling toward such an opportunity as she descends into the darkened woman's ward to search for The Mexican. Instead, she finds something else in this subterranean shadow world -- an alien. An ugly, gray-faced alien. A face-to-face, mind-blowing, paradigm-rocking close encounter with an archetypal Other. There are other meanings here, too. The alien could be projection of Sister Jude's guilt, or the manifestation of her monstrous control freak tendencies. Regardless, here is a chance for Sister Jude to heroically enter that innermost cave and grow, change, all that redemptive-transformative blah blah blah. Instead, she screams, and faints away. It's total Luke Skywalker/Darth Vader/Dagobah. "The caaaave... remember your failure in the caaaave."
What to do if you're victimized by The Man and The Man won't change? Well, there's irreverent, violent overthrow. See: Dr. Arden toppling the Virgin Mary statue. And there's also escape, which is surely justifiable, especially if you're trying to save your girlfriend from getting flayed by a serial killer. And so Kit and Grace try to escape. They are helped and joined by Lana, who knows the way out, and by the sacrifice of Shelley. Needing to elude Karl the Orderly, Shelly offers to provide a distraction. She hopes they can wait for her. She understands if they can't. And yet, Shelley reminds them that if they do get away, they have a responsibility to those left behind. And so the unlikely Christ gives Lana a great commandment: Write the expose that 'blows the lid" off the corruption in The Asylum. “Don’t forget me!” she says, then scoots off the blow Karl away.
But there won’t be a happy ending. For anyone. Even Sister Mary. We see her lean forward excitedly as The Sign of The Cross gets to the part where all the Christians die. The snippet we see is interesting: It begins with another censored bit – a Christian woman tied to spit in a gladiator arena, about to get eaten by a bunch of crocodiles – then moves into another scene in which a group of captive Christians decides to willingly go to their deaths, as if it represents some kind of defiance, and convinced that death is but “a happy deliverance” into the everlasting light of heaven. And so they trudge up the steps into the arena… and it’s at that moment that Frank alerts Sister Mary to the fact that a number of inmates are missing, as is Sister Jude. Sister Mary is put-out by the interruption. "Now? But the Christians are about to be eaten!" Nonetheless, the She-Devil pulls herself away, and so she is denied the spectacle of bloodletting.
Meanwhile, the tenuous alliance of Kit, Grace and Lana is falling apart. Mirroring the Christians in the film walking the tunnel into the arena, we see the trio travel the death chute. It brings them out of the Briarcliff hellhole into the woods. Freedom! They exult in the rain, Shawshank Redemption style. But then Grace betrays her name. She tells Lana that she still can’t trust Lana, that she can’t forgive or forget last week’s treachery. She tells Lana that once they get beyond the woods and to the road, they part ways. Forever. Kit looks at Lana with apologetic eyes, then sides with Grace. That’s when they encounter Dr. Adren’s mutant cannibal monsters, hideous with boils and sores. They play the role of the trio’s own fears made manifest – of the world; of each other – and there’s no dodging them. They have no choice: They have to retreat back into The Asylum. Back into the death chute they go, their latest escape episode another bust. Again, Ms. Nin: Love never dies a natural death. It dies because we don't know how to replenish it's source. It dies of blindness and errors and betrayals. It dies of illness and wounds; it dies of weariness, of witherings, of tarnishings.
And then, there's Shelley. She neutralizes Karl, but then she runs into Dr. Arden, and he's in a foul, foul mood. To be clear, the mad scientist's attack on the Virgin Mary was no heroic deed. His lipstick desecration of the idol -- perverting the statue into a model of his sick Madonna/whore complex -- was his own Cave encounter gone wrong. It may have provided catharsis, but no change. If anything, the simulation of misogyny seems to have hopped him up for the real thing, and Shelley represents the sum of his fear and loathing of female sexuality. In his eyes, she's a monster. Damaged and deviant; the toxic influence that soiled his pure, innocent Sister Mary. He drags Shelley into the lab, tries to force himself on her. She cries "Rape!" He laughs. But then he can't get it up -- Sister Mary's hex? -- and now it's Shelley who's laughing. Bad move. Arden completes his devolution into caveman by cracking her over the head with a paperweight. When Shelley wakes up, she finds that Arden has cooled off considerably... because he found a different way to purge his he-man woman-hating ya-yas by dismembering her legs. Her dream of liberation, cut off at the knees. And she screams.
Just as sad is the denouement with Sister Jude. Sister Mary finds the boss sleeping in a cell and wakes her up. Sister Jude asks if she saw the gray-face alien thing, but when Sister Mary looks baffled by the question, Sister Jude drops it. She's decided to forget about it. About everything. The bizarre business with The Little Girl, the monster, her relapse -- best just to bottle it up and deny, deny, deny. She's equally soured on the new policy of "compassion" and "positive reinforcement" for the inmates, especially with three of them now missing: The Mexican, Shelley and Pepper (who simply had to go to the bathroom). She blows into the Common Room and shuts down the film and declares a permanent end to movie nights. She doesn't take any personal responsibility. Instead, she blames "the three scufflers who abused my goodwill" by trying to escape. Cut to: Kit, Grace and Lana -- all wet -- sitting and shivering in their soaked clothes and muddy shoes. They wonder if she's referring to them. She's not. "A sex crazed deviant, The Mexican, and a pinhead won't get far in the storm."
Three innocents; three victims; three convenient scapegoats for all of Sister Judy's problems. As she struts out of the room, she adds: "I hope they all drown." And so it goes.
No escape from The Asylum. No happy deliverance. No easy exit from the problems of the world. What to do? What. To. Do.