Set in 1970, The Sect makes Frankfurt it's base camp and begins by introducing two characters who will soon enter the life of schoolteacher Miriam Kreisl (Kelly Curtis). Damon (Tomas Arana) arrives at the makeshift abode of a hippie commune and after slaughtering his unwitting hosts, aided by several accomplices, welcomes the arrival of Moebius Kelly (Herbert Lom) who declares, "It is not yet time. Maybe not for years".
When Euro stalwart John Morghen ( playing a character named Martin Romero!) figures in a gory, self-inflicted death scene, it's clear that an ancient evil is about to rise from the depths of history, driven by a loyal band of disciples. Kelly's part in the proceedings becomes more influential as the film progresses, gaining entrance to Kreisl's home after a road accident and displaying detailed knowledge of her personal life. Kelly's disturbing behaviour – punctuated by bouts of ill health leading to his disappearance – is beautifully rendered by Lom, and it's no coincidence that events do lose a little momentum during his temporary absence. Happily, Curtis establishes a grip on our senses, unveiling a pitch perfect range of emotions as the terrifying truth slowly emerges.
It certainly doesn't seem like a decade has since Soavi's own loyal band of followers were upgrading third-gen bootleg tapes for Guild Home Video's official UK release of The Sect. Now, those same people, together with a new generation of fans, can finally see Soavi's classic under ideal conditions, via a Region 2 Italian DVD, with optional English subtitles. Here, image quality is usually sharp as a tack, with only a few instances where the picture is a little on the soft side. On DVD, we can better appreciate those gorgeous colour schemes and gain a heightened awareness of some breathtaking camerawork: Argento-esque? Of course, though the work of Kieslowski also springs to mind. Individual performances benefit, too, from the increased image resolution: Lom's already impressive turn certainly grows in stature, while Kelly Curtis seems better than ever, delivering one of the best female lead performances in 90s horror cinema as Miriam is prepared for the ultimate occult desecration.
Which takes us back to Rosemary's Baby. Such comparisions are inevitable, but The Sect reveals other sundry influences and also offers visual and thematic ingenuity which may have inspired more recent filmmakers. Genre buffs will spot acknowledgments to Hooper's Texas Chain Saw Massacre, and Carpenter's Halloween where Curtis finds herself facing much the same sort of peril as sister Jamie Lee, some 15 years earlier. There's also a delightful tip of the hat to the films producer (sssh, you-know-who) during chapter 16; this time involving a key, rather than a brooch.
Comparisons can also be made to a certain Peter Weir film, with Soavi anticipating The Truman Show where the central character is also placed under surveillance from birth and lives a manufactured life. A far more likely connection can be found in the excellent Ring, where a close encounter down a well could have been inspired by the evil at the bottom of Soavi's long, vertical tunnel which turns out to be a birthing chamber for the chosen one.
Due to its slow pacing, The Sect may never receive the acclaim it so richly deserves, but a little patience will bring dividends; particularly if invested over multiple viewings where recurrent images and motifs take control over imagination: a white linen shroud that attaches itself to the heads of enemies and briefly covers Miriam's face to reveal the outline of Kelly's visage; dream sequences which prepare us for Miriam's unholy union, even the initially annoying presence of a pet rabbit forges a compelling link, representing not only a symbol of fertility but also reminding us that our four-legged friends have long been regarded as an emissary of the devil.
When the wonderful Dellamorte Dellamore graced our screens, Michele Soavi seemed ready to sweep all before him, doubtless casting an eye towards the throne occupied by Dario Argento. Sadly, a serious family illness placed his career on hold and we can only hope that news of his return to the fold proves to be correct.
As a considerable triumph of style over substance, The Sect is nothing less than Michele Soavi's Inferno. It remains to be seen whether it's the film he'll be remembered for.
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.