The Sect (1991)
Studio: Scorpion Releasing (via Doppelganger Releasing/Music Box films)
Release date: February 27th, 2018
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
If the Italian horror industry had any chance of surviving its dying days during the late 80s and early 90s, the savior most certainly would have been Michele Soavi. As the scene’s old guard—the likes of Fulci, Argento, Mattei, D’Amato, and Fragasso—succumbed to age, mediocrity, or inane (but entertaining!) whims, Soavi was quickly crafting an impressive resume bolstered by the likes of Stage Fright and The Church. A long-time protégé under Argento himself, Soavi embarked on an impressive run that would climax with one of the decade’s most unforgettable films in Cemetery Man. Somewhat lost to time, however, is The Sect, Soavi’s 1991 effort that hasn’t seen the light of day on American shores for decades. Released at some point under the title Demons 4 in some territories, it arrived here as the forgettable The Devil’s Daughter before going on to be quite elusive since the VHS era. As its various brandings suggest, it’s another round of Satanic Panic that ultimately feels familiar in more ways than one, as Savoi riffs on everything from 80s splatter to Rosemary’s Baby in an effort to raise hell in that signature Italian manner.
Which is to say The Sect is weird as hell, made even more so by a 117-minute runtime that stretches across a couple of decades. We begin in “South California,” where an early-70s hippie commune is visited by a wild-eyed, scraggly-looking stranger (Thomas Arana). Flower power and love is still in the air, so they naturally allow the man to spend the night, only to discover he’s the psychopathic leader of a Satanic cult that’s hell-bent on butchering everyone. Twenty years later, members of this same sect resurface in Frankfurt, where one of their number is still prone to carving out innocent girls’ hearts and carrying his gruesome treasure on the subway, only to have it pickpocketed to quite a stir on the train. Police intervene and take the psycho into custody but watch helplessly as he blows his own brains out. Your guess is as good as mine as to where this is all going, and I’ve seen the damn thing.
Meanwhile, in a series of seemingly unconnected events, school teacher Miriam Kresi (Kelly Curtis) unwittingly encounters their leader Moebius Kelly (Herbert Lom) during a near-accident on her way home. Feeling sorry for the feeble old man, she takes him into her home, totally oblivious to his Satanic ulterior motives. While she sleeps, he awakes from his near-death state to perform some sort of ritual that has him shooting bugs up her nose, causing her dreams to go haywire before she awakes to a new kind of nightmare: suddenly, the old man is actually dead but has left a supernatural mark on Miriam’s life, which is now haunted by a bunch of weird shit.
No joke: that’s pretty much the plot of The Sect, a film that scatters in just enough Italian horror nonsense into its absurdly long runtime to leave an impression. Whatever the titular sect is up to is kept purposely obtuse, largely because they’re actually not in the film very much, leaving their mechanizations to play out through a random assortment of violence and utter weirdness. Innocuous stuff—like Miriam’s (possibly magical?) pet rabbit going missing—escalates to more overt madness, some of it involving the old man’s death shroud, now capable of possessing anyone it latches itself onto. This is especially bad news for her co-worker, who finds herself transformed into a sultry jezebel in search of a truck stop tryst that ends in deadly fashion, an entire aside that doesn’t have much to do with the main thrust of the film.
But that’s just how The Sect operates: less a sustained narrative and more the laconic suggestion of one, it unfolds like a hazy nightmare, with all the abstraction that entails. This might be Soavi’s most obvious channeling of his mentor, as Argento’s fingerprints feel at least partially responsible for smudging the film’s fuzzy logic, while his bizarre preoccupation with animals (particularly insects) is also on display. Perhaps only Soavi and Argento could dream up a go-nowhere sequence where the pet rabbit inexplicably channel surfs with a remote control. It’s apropos of nothing yet completely captures the entire vibe of The Sect, a film that similarly surfs through its director’s odd whims, effectively drowning the viewers in an increasingly impressionistic plot.
While the story eventually comes into focus towards the end, Soavi still creates the sensation of dragging the audience along without much regard for their expectations of coherency. His imagery becomes even more unhinged here in his attempt to recreate the climax of Rosemary’s Baby with that distinct, lunatic verve of his homeland’s horror movies. Sure, Polanski’s film is iconic, but Soavi imagines it could really use some outrageous fire stunts and the presence of a giant bird, among other nonsense. Having seen it in action, I find it difficult to argue with this math: the end of The Sect is a downright hoot that makes its somewhat bloated runtime worthwhile.
Not that the rest of The Sect is a total drag or anything. On the contrary, both Lom and Arana are striking figures as their respective psychopaths, with the latter providing an especially memorable entrance that has him reciting Rolling Stones lyrics (“Sympathy for the Devil,” naitch). He’s obviously meant to recall Manson-era mania, and his butchering of a commune within the opening minutes sets a vicious precedent that the rest of the film chases with heart-gashing, face-ripping gusto. Sort of left to drift in the blood-soaked chaos is Curtis, essentially inhabiting a similar space as her famous sister: Miriam is assertive but vulnerable, if not sort of perfunctory in a way most of Jamie Lee’s characters weren’t. There’s never a sense that The Sect is really about Miriam as much as it’s about all of the weird stuff happening to her. If I’m being honest, the most indelible “character” might be her house, an ancient, labyrinthine structure that hoards secrets in its secret passages and hidden chambers.
The twisted architecture speaks to the maze-like construction of The Sect, which zigs and zags all over the place, coherency be damned. To its credit, it never feels as frivolous or ridiculous as most other Italian efforts from this era: between Raffaele Mertes’s elegant photography and Pino Donaggio’s haunting score, there’s the faintest sense that The Sect aspires to something beyond exploitative trash—even if it’s not always successful at it. Certainly, its Demons branding is unwarranted and unfairly places it among the dubious company of those lesser, similarly retitled knock-offs. On the other hand, its association with Soavi also makes it slightly disappointing, given how tremendous his other horror output was: in many ways, The Sect feels like his difficult third album: there’s clear ambition and the makings of a hit during a few standout sequences, but it’s ultimately too unwieldy and indulgent to rank among his best work.
Now that it’s finally been rescued from the bowels of obscurity by Scorpion Releasing, Stateside enthusiasts can at least witness The Sect for the first time in years. It’s a release that’s been a long time coming, and like Scorpion’s other recent releases, this particular disc is the first of two set for this year. Released in conjunction with Doppelganger Releasing and Music Box Films, this one features a painstakingly restored transfer and the film’s English soundtrack (whereas the later release will feature multiple language options).
This one also features a pair of separate interviews with Arana and Soavi, both of whom discuss this film in particular before addressing other aspects of their careers. The former goes on to discuss his approach to acting, noting the differences between Italian and American productions before going on to sing the praises of Eurohorror staple David Hemmings, among other bits. Soavi largely focuses on The Sect, dropping a few interesting nuggets along the way, like the fact that Lisa Wilcox was his original choice for the lead role but had to decline due to pregnancy. With a combined length of 50 minutes, these interviews are solid entry points, but hardcore fans that crave more will have to wait for Scorpion’s Limited Edition for more.
In the meantime, this is a more than solid edition for the rest of us, and I can only hope it eventually leads to someone releasing the last two “Demons” movies from Lamberto Bava and Luigi Cozzi. Even if this wasn’t the most fruitful era for this scene, far be it from me to refuse more if some aspiring studio were to offer it. Besides, do you know how dumb my movie collection looks with an incomplete set of only six Demons movies? comments powered by Disqus Ratings: