Thursday, October 29, 2009

Italian Horror Blog-a-thon: The Church (aka Cathedral of Demons, aka Demon Cathedral, aka Demons 3, aka In the Land of the Demons)

[Today we have a review for one of my favorite Italian horror films by my favorite Italian horror filmmaker. Here's another one, like City of the Living Dead, that I kind of dismissed when I initially watched, but subsequent viewings have been much kinder to this film. Oh, and it has what is possibly the best Italian horror soundtrack...Keith Emerson and Goblin doing Philip Glass! Enjoy]

Michele Soavi’s The Church is probably the most atmospheric, feast-for-the-eyes type of Italian horror film since Lucio Fulci's 1981 masterpiece The Beyond. It shares a lot of the surreal, nonsensical plot structure of Fulci’s film, too. But as we’ve come to discover through this blog-a-thon, if there’s one general rule to Italian horror it’s that you leave logic at the door. What Soavi has created here, despite less than favorable working conditions (I’ll get to that later), is a visual masterpiece of the subgenre. One of the best Italian horror movies to come out of the 80’s, and clearly shows why everyone thought that Soavi was the savior of Italian horror. He never made an uninteresting film, and The Church is one of his most fascinating.

A group of Teutonic Knights kick starts the story as they decapitate and plumage a small town full of people thought to be devil worshipers. They’re buried hastily, and a church is erected on top of the grave so that it will lock the evil in for eternity, but of course that doesn’t work. Right away Soavi shows his hops as we get plenty shots from the Knight’s POV, masking the screen and allowing us only to see the action through the clearing of their masks which is in the shape of the cross. Soavi seems to be doing two things here: showing us the limited vision of these “with hunters” by not just masking part of the screen, but also showing us the limited vision (or narrow-mindedness) of how organized religions were killing – the death and destruction is seen through the image of a cross. It’s one of many instances where Soavi showcases his skill of wanting to do more with this particular subgenre; Italian horror wasn’t all about gore for him like it was becoming for Fulci and Argento, and the genre was better for it as Soavi was getting back to the more unsettling nature that Italian horror lends itself to.

Back to the story: In modern day Germany we are introduced to what the cathedral looks like today. Lisa (Barbara Cupisti) is restoring a baroque fresco on the wall of the church and is immediately smitten with Evan (Tomas Arana) the new librarian. These characters are the catalyst for the evil that is about to be unleashed within the cathedral. The bishop knows about the architecture of the building and how it holds a key to a horrible secret that will unlock the demons of the past, but he is reluctant to share that information with Father Gus (Hugh Quarshie) who is not well liked by the other priests. All of this is kind of hard to keep track of (there’s not much care with the story as we have three different “main” characters throughout the film) as we keep cutting back and forth between Lisa and Evan’s story, the story of the priests, and the story of the daughter of the family that lives in the cathedral and are employed as caretakers for the priests. The daughters name is Lotte (a young Asia Argento) and she hates having to be cooped up all day in the cathedral. She has a secret getaway that not even the priests know about (because supposedly there’s only one way in and out of the cathedral), which comes in handy towards the end of the film.

Soavi films The Church in an unsettling, unnerving fashion where we are never quite sure what is going to happen next. He relies on hallucinations to displace the viewer (instead of playing the otherworldly scenes as if they were real), and this adds to the nightmarish feeling the film so perfectly evokes. At the hour mark or so the gathering of victims begins and the movie turns from curious and interesting supernatural horror flick to generic Demons-esque gore fest. And I think this is where there was a clear disconnect between Argento and Soavi. The gathering of victims trope doesn’t seem to fit with Soavi’s deliberate pace and moody storytelling (it seems more suited for a slasher movie or the schlocky Demons series helmed by Lamberto Bava…Soavi’s film is sometimes referred to as Demons 3), but somehow Soavi is able to make the film interesting despite the generic nature of the films plot (much like he did with Stage Fright). Soavi is able to fashion some really creepy moments amidst all the banality where people who just happen upon the church enter and die.

One of these scenes is where Evan, after opening the portal to the damned, is obviously not himself. He’s sitting at his typewriter pounding on the keys (wisely Soavi doesn’t use cheesy music to ramp up the creepy factor – he just lets the typewriter noises and the squeaky chair Evan’s sitting in do all the work) while Lotte sits nearby and listens to music. We see immediately that something isn’t right as the only key he is hitting is “6”. This leads to a rather bizarre and scary exchange between Evan and Lotte.

There’s also a creepy tracking shot towards the film’s climax where Lotte is leading Father Gus to her secret escape out of the cathedral. As they make their way underneath the cathedral they walk by what we presume to be the devil making love to Lisa (in a scene that seems cribbed from Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby, but it’s effective nonetheless), and Evan leading the group of possessed in a satanic chant. The tracking shot, accompanied by the unnerving organ score by Emerson and Goblin, is one of the down-right creepiest things I’ve seen in a horror movie.

There’s also a great scene at the end (again showing what Soavi could do with a budget) where Father Gus solves the riddle of the architect, and just as the cathedral is about ready to crumble to the ground, the stack of bodies buried beneath the church (from the beginning of the movie) rises up in a muddy blob. It’s one of the weirdest visuals I’ve seen.

Despite the films deliberate pacing Soavi always manages to keep your interest. The man really knows how to frame a shot and make every image pop off the screen. There's a scene that shows Soavi's skill and ability to have a funny/shocking moment without being gratuitous. An old couple locked in the church bicker at each other; after the wife has been infected by the demons she wants her husband to accompany her to the bell tower. When they get up to the bell they notice there aren't any strings to ring the bell. What we get is more generic old married couple humor; however, the punch line is pretty funny as Soavi cuts away from the scene for a moment and then in a completely different scene we hear the bell...Soavi cuts back and it's the old woman hitting the bell with her husbands severed head.

Soavi had fun with this one, too, made evident by the aforementioned scene of the elderly couple in the bell tower. However, despite the fact that Soavi has some fun with certain scenes one aspect of the film that makes it so interesting is how it deals with its bizarre imagery. Soavi plays it straight in this regard unlike the previous camp film Demons and Demons 2, which were more about people morphing into disgusting monsters after becoming possessed; here Soavi seems to take the world of the occult pretty seriously (he would return to the subject just two years later with The Sect). Instead of these bizarre goings-on being played for reality (thus they would inevitably be played for laughs because there’s some pretty bizarre imagery in the film) Soavi has the victims hallucinate the odd things that happen to them – it’s the perfect way to elicit the uncertain feeling he wants his audience to have while watching his movie.

For instance in one scene a man who has been scratched by one of the possessed (or infected, if you will) begins to see weird reflections in the holy water. When he looks closer a giant piranha like fish comes out of the fountain and attaches it to the man’s face. A priest happens upon this and wonders what is going on as all he can see is the man scratching and pulling at his own face. There are numerous occurrences like this throughout the film, and they work so much better than had Soavi tried to legitimately pass off that there is a giant devil fish jumping out of the basin holding the holy water (which someone like Lamberto Bava or Fulci would have done with gory gusto).

Soavi once again ends one of his films with someone smiling at the camera (as he did in Stage Fright), but here I don’t think it’s a sardonic touch, I just think he has a devilish finish in mind. I think what one can extract from that ending (and the fact that Asia Argento plays the little girl in the beginning of the movie) is that Lotte is timeless…that she is always around when this evil is unleashed, so perhaps she is the one that brings the evil from city to city. I don’t know if that’s what Soavi intended, but one can definitely infer that from the smile Lotte gives at the end of the film as the blue light washes over her.

The movie is the epitome of what makes Italian horror so great. It's more than just gross scene after gross has genuinely scary moments that aren’t accompanied by a thrashing of keys or noises employed only to make the viewer jump, but these unnerving and unsettling scenes are always accompanied by the equally unsettling and unnerving musical score...a norm for Italian horror. The way these Italian horror soundtracks (Emerson and Goblin were favorites of Argento and Soavi) usher the viewer through the film ( I especially like how Soavi’s camera is fluid in introducing the cathedral while Philip Glass’ “Floe” is playing) is exactly how the filmmakers want you to approach their films: these aren’t films designed to make you jump out of your chair with cheap scare tactics, these are more cerebral films designed to get under your skin through a deliberate process – the films put you in a kind of reverie that you wish you could snap out of. I think it’s one of the reasons why this particular subgenre has such a passionate following, because these are definitely different kinds of horror movies…they’re a breath of fresh air from all the blasé horror films that get released in American theaters (this was especially the case during the 80’s).

The Church marked an important time in the Soavi’s career. Fresh off his slasher hit Stage Fright, Soavi was asked to join the production team for Terry Gilliam’s The Adventures of Baron Munchausen after Gilliam had seen Stage Fright at a film festival. Soavi was asked to film over 200 special effects scenes, and after the ordeal was over, longed to be back in Italy making films with a close-knit crew, rather than on a film backed by Hollywood producers. Soavi stated that he liked the intimacy he experienced being First AD for Argento’s Opera, Tenebre, and Phenomena; and that the hugeness of Gilliam’s production just wasn’t for him (though he was thankful for the opportunity, and eventually worked with him again on the 2005 film The Brothers Grim as an AD).

The film also added more stress to the already strained relationship between Soavi the protégé and Argetno the mentor. Apparently during production Argento really wanted Lamberto Bava, another of Argento’s acolytes, to be the director of the film (since The Church was intended to be the third in the Bava/Argento series Demons), but he was kicked off the project after a lackluster script. Soavi was brought in to punch up the story, but Argento wouldn’t allow him to employ any of his own crew members. Argento insisted on using his own crew and breathing down the neck (he was co-writer and producer of the film) of Soavi throughout the production. Amazingly Soavi managed to survive and create something that still had his particular stamp on it. The style may be indebted to Argento, but if you’ve seen any of Soavi’s other films then you know after watching The Church that it’s unequivocally a Soavi film; and the fact that he was able to push his style through despite all the on-set problems proves the talent of this Italian maestro.

Many people felt like Soavi was the savior of Italian horror – especially after the success of this film and his hugely popular Cemetery Man – but family issues derailed his career as he took an extended sabbatical from filmmaking to care for his sickly son. When he returned to making movies it became more apparent that Soavi wasn't joking when he mentioned in a Fangoria interview that he doesn't like to repeat himself with his films and that he's "always trying to do something new with each film". That sentiment couldn't have been more true as he has made a handful of films since returning to filmmaking and none of the have been horror movies. A few have been mob flicks, and another was about the life of St Francis of Assisi…something new indeed. We can only hope that he tries his hand at horror again.

Here are tons of extra stills:


  1. Wow, thanks for this great post packed with screenshots. I bought this awhile ago (since it was going OOP) and haven't watched it yet... you just made me want to finally break the seal!

  2. Good review and jam-packed with stills. What more can I ask for?

    Of course, now I feel a bit silly, since I just sent you my review of that today (along with one other one). How's that for timing? ;-)

  3. Another great Soavi masterpiece, though sometimes certain scenes dont have much logic to them (like those scenes with the biker and his girlfriend) the film is still awesome, it has some truly disturbing imagery!

    Love those scenes with the demon having sex with the woman, and those scenes with that winged demon embracing the other...

    I only wish Soavi would have made more beautiful looking horror films.

  4. Erich:

    Don't break the seal! just sounded like something I should say in regards to this movie. You should definitely watch this makes for a spooky Halloween offering. Thanks for stopping by.

  5. Tim:

    I thought the same thing when I saw your review. I'm glad there's someone else out there who appreciates this movie.

  6. Francisco:

    You and me both, man. I really hope Soavi comes back to the genre, but I highly doubt he will based on his comments in that Fangoria interview. I think this is Soavi's masterpiece, and even though Cemetery Man may have more of a cult following, I still prefer this gem of a horror film. It really gets under your skin...kind of like the classic The House with Laughing Windows.

    Thanks as always for stopping by!

  7. This is one crazy film filled with all sorts intense images and scenes. It was one of those rare films that stayed with me days after watching it. I haven't watched it in ages but your well-written post as me jonesin' to pull out my DVD and give it a spin just in time fer Halloween.

  8. Thanks, J.D. I'm glad to see this film has so many fans. It's definitely a good, spooky choice for Halloween night. Thanks for the kind words.

  9. This is a monumental review and one of your finest achievements ever Kevin! The vivid color screen caps are amazing as well. Sounds like there are more than a few resemblances to Fulci's THE BEYOND (which you do acknowledge here)and the story where evil is locked underground is also similar. I have never seen this horror film, nor am I terribly familiar with this director, but I think you convyed its essence within the general consideration of Italian horror:

    "The movie is the epitome of what makes Italian horror so great. It's more than just gross scene after gross has genuinely scary moments that aren’t accompanied by a thrashing of keys or noises employed only to make the viewer jump, but these unnerving and unsettling scenes are always accompanied by the equally unsettling and unnerving musical score...a norm for Italian horror. The way these Italian horror soundtracks (Emerson and Goblin were favorites of Argento and Soavi) usher the viewer through the film ( I especially like how Soavi’s camera is fluid in introducing the cathedral while Philip Glass’ “Floe” is playing) is exactly how the filmmakers want you to approach their films: these aren’t films designed to make you jump out of your chair with cheap scare tactics, these are more cerebral films designed to get under your skin through a deliberate process – the films put you in a kind of reverie that you wish you could snap out of."

    I will definitely be checking this out soon. Nice to be backed in the Hallowed Halls of Hugo Stiglitz, the Mecca of Italian horror.

  10. Hey Kevin-

    Excellent job here. I want to piggy-back on Erich's comment up top and say that your enthusian for The Church has made me want to watch it again.

    Full disclousure: It's always been hard for me to fully get immersed in Italian horror. Don't get me wrong, I enjoy watching it but there is a lack of fluidity in much of it that keeps me from connecting to a lot of it.

    However, I think you screen grabs here kind of capture the essence of what I DO like about Italian horror. In fact, I would say that your caps make a visual argument for The Church (and the genre) as much as your written review does. They're just great. What I'm left with from the films I do like are the stark imagery, and you've carefully plucked some good ones here.

    P.S. Sorry I'm late to the blog-a-thon. I look forward to catching up on everything.

  11. Sam:

    Always a pleasure to have you around. I hope your crazy month has settled down for you and your family. Thanks as always for the kind words.

    I really hope you acquaint yourself with Soavi. I think that his films are a perfect representation of what Argento used to be. I also think you would like the creepy atmosphere in Soavi's films, which reminds me of some later Bava. I hope you give The Church a's an eerie, moody horror film with a lot of unique visuals.

  12. Fox:

    Thanks for the kind words. I'm glad you've been able to stop by and see what's going on here. You're right, too...Italian horror isn't for everyone. There are some films that I think transcend the sub-genre, but more often than not you really have to give your self to these non-sensical films. I think the general feeling here is that if you leave logic at the door you'll be able to enjoy the film purely on a visceral level...but if you require even the slightest logic (or as you state, fluidity) then usually these films come across as failures.

    I'm glad you enjoyed the screen's probably the best part of this whole deal because like you I think that a visual essay is just as good an endorsement as a written essay. Plus, it's a lot of fun going through these films and finding the scenes that stand out.

    Thanks again for the kind words, Fox. Always great to have you around here at Hugo Stiglitz...

  13. It looks like a beautiful film. I know Soavi only from "Cemetery Man," but that one makes me confident about exploring his earlier horror work, and your review makes me more enthusiastic about tracking this down.

  14. Wow...NICE WRITEUP here--love the detail and the images. I'm a huge fan of the Italian horrors and so many blogs just skim over these films and don't bother going into much detail. Well done!

  15. Nice article you got here. It would be great to read a bit more about this theme. Thanks for posting this data.
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