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The Church (1988)
Director: Michele Soavi
review by Octavio Ramos Jr
Having worked as an actor with the likes of Lucio Fulci (Gates Of Hell) and as a second-assistant then first-assistant director with Dario Argento (Tenebrae as the former, Creepers as the latter), Milan-born Michele Soavi made his directorial début on the documentary Dario Argento's World of Horror. In 1987, Soavi released his first full-length effort, Stagefright, which could be seen as an alternate rendering of Argento's Opera (aka: Terror At The Opera).
Soavi's second feature had its beginnings with Lamberto Bava (son of the great Mario Bava, and a fine filmmaker in his own right), who had developed a story treatment and then lost interest. Bava junior had directed Demons (original title, Demoni) and Demons 2 (aka: Demoni 2: L'Incubo Ritorna), with Argento taking a writing credit for the first film and a producer credit for the sequel. The Church (aka: La Chiesa) had been initially intended as 'Demons 3'. Once Bava was out of the picture, Argento worked with Franco Ferrini to develop the story. Helping write the final screenplay was Soavi himself.
Fans of Italian cinema will feel right at home watching The Church, but those not familiar with the likes of Suspiria, Macabro, Zombi, and Zeder may become disoriented, frustrated, and perhaps even bored with the proceedings. The principal problems - or benefits, depending on your point of view - are an overabundance of plots and style over substance.
The Church opens with a group of medieval knights destroying a village that a Catholic priest believes is infested with witches and other evil creatures. The priest points to a stigmata in the form of a cross on the bottom of a woman's foot and declares that the witches trod upon all that is holy. One of the witches (played by Argento's daughter Asia) almost gets away, only to be speared by one of the knights.
The Knights Templar are the equestrian warriors in question, though in the film they are called by a lesser-known title, the Tutonic Knights. They were a monastic military order formed at the end of the First Crusade, which protected Christian pilgrims en route to the Holy Land. The Templar order was eventually destroyed because they had gained so much power and wealth that they threatened the monarchy. In 1307, King Philip had the knights tortured and killed on the grounds of heresy. One confession brought about during such torture sessions was that the knights worshiped Baphomet, a demon in the service of Lucifer. (Baphomet is found in the Goetia and some scholars believe the name is a corruption of Mahomet, the Islamic prophet.)
The sequence ends with the knights burying the entire village in a mass grave. When one of the women raises her arm, the priest declares that the witches are returning from the dead. To prevent such a blasphemy from taking place, he orders the grave sealed with a giant cross and sigil and that a church be built upon the site so that the evil may never rise again.
From this historical opening, The Church moves into the present, where ambitious librarian Evan (Tomas Arana, whose most recent films include Gladiator and The Bodyguard) and painting restorationist Lisa (Barbara Cupsti, whose films include Soavi's Stagefright and Argento's Opera) stumble upon an ancient parchment that reveals the decaying contents under the church. Evan eventually removes the seal encasing the spirits of the witches and their demons, and as a result the church itself seals all the windows and a singular door in an attempt to keep the evil confined.
Unfortunately, there are a number of visitors at the church, including a group of children, and weird elderly couple, and a model and her entourage (this is the Demons angle that was perhaps the kernel of Bava's initial treatment). These unfortunate souls become possessed, Lisa makes love to Baphomet, heads are chopped off and gore ensues (a jackhammer incident is just one of the sick set-pieces), and eventually one of the priests, Father Gus (Hugh Quarshie of Highlander) discovers the device that will bring the church crumbling down upon all the demons. Oh yeah, and Asia Argento plays a little girl that sneaks out to party in the city and for her sins has her mouth washed out with soap (Asia's character seems to be a reincarnation of the witch seen in the opening of the film, but The Church does not fully explore this thread). She also appears in the film's coda, a subtle shocker in which the evil returns.
The principal theme of The Church is that humans create their own evils, and yet Soavi (and perhaps even Argento) cannot help but mine the supernatural. As a result, we are treated to images of Baphomet, dark angels, and rotting corpses come alive. If man creates good and evil, then why is there a God and a devil? And furthermore, why are there supernatural demons and other abominations?
Other themes abound. There are mysteries to be deciphered (such as the parchment and the alchemist's secret), tunnels to be explored (one leads to a subway that has lethal results to its delvers), minor characters to showcase (the elderly lady cuts off her husband's head and uses it to ring the church bells), and ideas to discuss (evil is postulated to be a biological plague passed through blood and the seven deadly sins are exemplified, such as when a model is shown the negative consequences of vanity). If you want a convoluted, often confusing story, The Church has all the necessary elements.
Despite the frustrating plot elements, The Church is a pleasure to watch. There is a pervading sense of doom throughout the picture, the cinematography and direction are creative and visually exciting, the sets and special effects are eye candy (I really liked Baphomet and the Dark Angel), and the overarching story can be followed rather easily. The Church also features a soundtrack mostly written by Philip Glass and performed by the Goblins (heavy metal jazz that can be found on films like Suspiria) and Keith Emerson.
Soavi's floating ever-moving camera is so stylish that the film feels lush and exciting. As a filmmaker, Soavi was still maturing, and it would not be until Cemetery Man (1994) that his prowess as a director and storyteller would come to full fruition. Some of the film's flaws may even be attributed to Argento, whose cinematic stamp can be seen in The Church (Argento's interest in witches has been chronicled in Susipria, Inferno, and a yet to be developed third film in the 'Three Mothers' story). There's also the contrivance of the internal Demons treatment, which feels forced. At one point, the film is very open, with characters moving about the city. Suddenly, everyone becomes trapped within the church, giving the movie a Night Of The Living Dead feel to it.
The Church is an entertaining, through-provoking film with a few shocking moments and some truly inspired visuals. Although the plot may bog down some viewers, Italian movie connoisseurs and horror movie buffs will find much to enjoy. So, get to church, already!
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