Produced and co-written by Dario Argento, The Church is really two, different horror movies. One assembles inspired fragments: hellish visions, virtuoso camera moves, medieval imagery, surreal monsters lurking out of frame – and crafts a spellbinding atmosphere of gothic dread. The other is a bog standard “bunch of misfits under siege” scenario, not dissimilar to Argento’s Demons movies with Lamberto Bava. Indeed some claim it was originally intended to be Demons 3, a title also bestowed upon Bava’s The Ogre (1988) and Umberto Lenzi’s, dull as dirt, Black Demons (1991). The transition from one movie into another invariably disappoints, because the opening half promises so much. Still, Michele Soavi – too good a filmmaker to let us down entirely – ensures there is gory fun to be had along the way.
A shock opening, set in medieval Europe, sees Teutonic knights slaughter a coven of witches. One cute witch tries reasoning with them, and gets her face crushed. So immediately, we know these guys are jerks. The argument that the coven were unjustly persecuted innocents holds less water in light of all the satanic voodoo that follows, but never mind. A lone, teenage, survivor (Asia Argento) bears witness, as bodies are flung into a pit (including a dead goose. What did he do?), upon which monks build the titular house of god. Flash forward centuries later and Asia is reincarnated as Lotte, the caretaker’s daughter. Soavi sets the scene with a spectacular dolly shot. Gliding up from the catacombs to circle around the church interiors, he introduces his characters: a crotchety monsignor, good-hearted Father Gus (Holby City’s Hugh Quarshie), art restorer Lisa (Barbara Cupisti) and inquisitive scholar, Evan (Tomas Arana).
Evan is the film’s red herring. He’s likeable, befriends Lotte, enjoys a budding romance with Lisa – it seems like he’ll be our hero. But, after venturing inside the catacombs, Evan lets loose the evil, and pretty much disappears from the narrative. The caretaker gets possessed, satanic apparitions (invisible horses, a leering goat-headed demon) assail Lisa, while Lotte sneaks out for a night on the town. “The world is the devil’s”, mutters a grumpy priest. His world-weary resignation suggests the evil is born less from the witches’ tormented souls, more from supernatural forces used to contain them (Otherwise if Lotte’s descended from witches, why pick on her?). Scenes of Asia disco dancing in miniskirted splendour might express a theme of passions buried/suppressed beneath surface institutions. Or maybe, they’re an excuse to ogle Euro horror’s most beloved nymphet. Whatever works for you.
That Catholicism is a byword for repression, misogyny and sexual dysfunction is ultimately as didactic and one sided a notion as saying witchcraft is all about hexes and virgin sacrifice. Fortunately, Quarshie’s dignified, conflicted man of god provides a counterpoint to the rude, mumbling monks who get what’s coming to them. A real metaphysical debate from Argento and Soavi, about good and evil, would be welcome, but this isn’t that kind of movie. It boils down to a bunch of familiar horror archetypes trapped in the church: some schoolchildren and their teacher, a narcissistic model, two bikers and a truly obnoxious, elderly couple. Watch out for Italian horror’s favourite victim Giovanni Lombardo Radice, as a priest. After having his head drilled in City of the Living Dead (1980), and his privates hacked off in Cannibal Ferox (1981), what horrors await him here? Lord knows, because Soavi pointlessly cuts away.
It’s symptomatic of his direction as a whole. Events suffer from the uneven pace. Slapdash scenes co-exist with moments of brilliance. The gore scenes are effective, but devoid of any emotional content. Soavi recreates Boris Vallejo’s famous painting of a demon embracing a naked girl, among many striking images: a cross tumbling into a black abyss, a beating heart torn from its chest, and the unforgettable sculpture made of writhing corpses. That goat-headed demon copulates with Lisa (who seems more bored than inflamed with satanic passion) as Soavi references Rosemary’s Baby (1968) to little effect. Yet his repeated circular dolly shots invoke a sense of ritual, of characters trapped in cyclical events. Ultimately, The Church remains as perplexing as that final shot of Lotte smiling over the blue light (Given the contradictory information we’ve received throughout, it’s hard to understand this ‘happy’ ending). For Soavi it was a stepping-stone, towards the greater glory of Dellamorte Dellamore (1994).
Italian director best known for his stylish horror work, Soavi first worked both as an actor and assistant director on a variety of notable genre films, including Dario Argento's Tenebrae, Phenomena and Opera, and Lamberto Bava's Demons. After making the Argento documentary World of Horror, Soavi directed the superb 1987 slasher Stage Fright.
The Argento-produced follow-ups The Church and The Sect were flawed but intriguing supernatural shockers, while 1994's Dellamorte Dellamore was a unique, dreamlike zombie comedy. Unfortunately family troubles forced Soavi out of film-making soon after, and although he now works in Italian TV, his horror days seem behind him.