The Church (1989)
Studio: Scorpion Releasing
Release date: March 20th, 2018
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
If there was ever an argument to be made that Michele Soavi was the rightful heir to the Italian horror throne, look no further than the curious case of The Church. After Lamberto Bava declined to direct another Demons sequel, the task fell to Soavi, who also had little interest in such a standard follow-up. As such, he—with the blessing of producer Dario Argento—practically tossed the franchise out, preferring instead to do his own thing, with the final result being virtually unrecognizable as a Demons film…which, of course, didn’t stop some distributors from marketing it as Demons 3 anyway. But of the three contenders to the Demons 3 throne (and of course there were multiple contenders since the Italian film industry was going down swinging at this point), The Church is the best, if only because it’s guided by Soavi’s jittery, kitchen sink approach that has him conjuring up nonsense in an almost stream-of-consciousness fashion. Like so many of the films Soavi himself idolized, no one would consider The Church to be coherent or straightforward, and even though such films were a dime a dozen by this point, his are especially alluring in the way they unfold like a druggy haze, taking the audience to insane, unfathomable depths in the span of one movie.
Case in point: The Church opens in medieval Germany, where a group of Teutonic Knights lays waste to a village of alleged Satanists. The prologue is unapologetically violent, as Soavi’s camera weaves through this massacre, capturing an unholy hack-and-slash orgy that leaves dismembered bodies scattered upon a scorched earth. To conceal their crime and cleanse the heathen sin from the land, the knights bury the bodies in a mass grave, then top it off with a cathedral to further sanctify the land. Centuries later, the church still stands, and its newest archivist (Thomas Arana) has taken to poking around the place, searching its hidden nooks and crannies. Inevitably, he stumbles upon the seal in the basement floor and removes it, unwittingly unleashing the accursed evil that’s been hidden and locked away. Before long, the archivist is spreading the evil like a contagion throughout his circle of acquaintances, which balloons into a colorful cast of characters surrounding the church itself.
Quite literally, this is only the half of it: what starts with a Medieval inquisition sleepily transforms into a Prince of Darkness riff, albeit one that’s embellished with Soavi’s signature flourishes. Where Carpenter inspired terror with a vague, almost Lovecraftian evil that tethered his film, Soavi is more concerned with indulging his (very Italian) brand of Weird Shit, cohesive narrative be damned. A fairly large ensemble loiters in and out of the proceedings, occasionally propelling the meager plot through outbursts of supernatural violence. Otherwise, the film just sort of drones along, soaked in a gothic atmosphere and buoyed by a dazzling Goblin score, both of them working in concert alongside various non-sequiturs and characters whose behavior can sometimes charitably be called “vaguely human.” If one were to consider The Church to be lethargic, they wouldn’t exactly be wrong: with its 102-minute runtime, it’s never in a particular hurry to get anywhere, nor is it especially concerned with weaving a story beyond working up to the inevitable carnage that will come roaring from the grave concealed beneath the church.
Depending on your persuasion, it’s either galling or audacious how Soavi doesn’t give much of a damn about it, so much so that The Church can barely be said to have a lead character. Arana’s archivist is certainly primed for the slot, yet doesn’t survive the film’s halfway point. Hell, he’s barely pertinent beyond acting as the catalyst for spreading the curse among the rest of the cast, to whom he yields for the better half of the movie. Most of them are far more interesting too, if only because they’re either outlandish or completely strange. Among the assortment is a priest with a knack for archery (a weirdly specific skill that manages to come in handy later on), a lout of a father who’s prone to washing his impish daughter’s (Asia Argento in an early role!) mouth out with soap, and a wedding party that descends upon the church to shoot bridal photos (?!).
Eventually, most of these characters (plus a few others for good body count measure) become trapped in the church, where the evil lurking in its bowels has completely spread, manifesting as both an actual demon and a vague force guiding them to their blood-spattered doom. It’s at this point that The Church’s origins as Demons 3 is most obvious, as it has the same general premise as those two films, one that finds a group of people stuck in a location and fending off a contagious evil. But where Bava’s films thrived on brisk, candy-colored delirium (with a healthy dose of Bobby Rhodes kicking ass), Soavi’s is content to linger in that foggy realm somewhere between a nightmare and a daydream. Urgency isn’t much of a priority, nor is moving towards some discernible climax. Rather, the film’s home stretch is more a collection of carnage-laden scenes that crawl towards something that feels like more of an ellipsis than a period.
But before The Church trails off into the ether, it conjures up some indelible moments, most of them involving outrageous bloodshed. One finds a woman (specifically a teacher chaperoning a field trip) searching frantically for her glasses when they’re jarred loose. An awful fate awaits, as Soavi almost playfully builds up to a demise that has her colliding with a crazed lunatic that’s running rampant through the church, wielding a (very sharp) wrought iron railing. Even more improbable—and ridiculous—is an ill-fated attempt by a couple of lovers to escape the cathedral via a hidden passage that leads below. As the girl climbs down into the darkness, she looks on with surprise as a pair of lights approaches—only to discover all too late that they’re the harbingers of a subway train that swiftly reduces her head to a pulp in one of the most unexpected, twisted—but face-meltingly awesome—scenes you’ll ever witness. You might be inclined to wonder how any of it makes sense, but it should be clear by now that logic is largely anathema to Eurohorror: of course there’s a subway tunnel beneath this church because what else is going to come along and pummel this girl’s face into oblivion?
It’s in this respect that Soavi captured the spark of his predecessors in a way that few others did. Many of his contemporaries were certainly churning out whackadoo entries of their own, but he did so with a certain assuredness that eluded most of those other, more frivolous films. Even if The Church does inspire some guffaws here and there, they’re mostly coaxed out of sheer awe: you can’t believe it actually goes there with the gusto that it often does. This is the sort of film where quick shots of a demon mounting a woman function as grace notes rather than any sort of apparent plot point, a fleeting image that feels like the vague stuff from a half-remembered dream. The Church is unapologetic in its melding of nightmare logic with gothic sensibilities—it swirls you up in its madness, bludgeons you with bewildering violence, and then leaves you too dazed to even dare laugh at it.
After spending the past decade and a half confined to a couple of DVD releases (it’s one of the scores of films that Blue Underground re-released when Anchor Bay’s initial efforts went out of print), The Church finally debuts on Blu-ray from Scorpion Films. As has been the case with the label’s recent treatment of other Eurohorror fare, this one’s sort of an “economy” release that doesn’t feature the extra language tracks and extensive supplements that will be found on a more elaborate, limited edition pressing later this year. But to its credit, it does sport a terrific restored transfer, plus a pair of interviews with Soavi and Asia Argento.
Some of the material in the former’s overlaps with the interview found on Scorpion’s recent disc for The Sect, as the director recounts how he went from a devoted Argento fan to collaborating with his idol. From there, he moves on to address The Church itself, noting its well-known origins as a modified Demons sequel before digging into the specifics of the production (most notably its locations). Argento’s interview is a bit shorter, but she does enthusiastically reminisce about how fun it was to be around these sorts of productions, even when she was a child. Instead of being frightened out of her wits, she quickly became acclimated to the environment, noting that she was especially comfortable working with Soavi because she’d known him for as long as she could remember. These are fine supplements, even if they’re not exactly exhaustive—but, again, that’s sort of the point for this particular release. Fans will want to hold off, of course, but for the uninitiated, this is a fine enough effort—not to mention a potent reminder that Scorpion is doing the lord’s work in highlighting Soavi’s largely unsung contributions to the genre, an agenda that we can only hope culminates with a new release of Cemetery Man in the near future. comments powered by Disqus Ratings: