Monday, October 31, 2011

Italian Horror Blogathon: The Sect (aka La setta, The Devil's Daughter)

I knew when I started this blogathon that I wanted to make sure I covered some stalwarts of the Italian horror subgenre. Everyone knows about Fulci and Argento (both have been covered with the first blogathon), but I always feel the urge to carry the torch for the lesser known, underappreciated Michele Soavi. Last blogathon I covered three of his four horror films – Stagefright, Cemetery Man, and The Church – and this year I knew I wanted to cover the other one: the much maligned The Sect. I also knew that I wanted some of these posts to coalesce a little bit more than the previous blogathon, and so I found it natural to talk about this film in light of my piece on Lamberto Bava’s Graveyard Disturbance, and how that film marked the end of bigger budget Italian horror movies. Made in 1991, The Sect had a budget of 2 million dollars (actually quite large at the time for Italian horror movies) and wasn’t much of a success. The film clocks in at almost two hours and seems to take itself way more seriously than Italian horror films of the past. However, I’ve always liked the film and feel that it is unfairly maligned when you compare to the weak attempts by contemporaries Argento (Trauma), Fulci (Demonia), Deodato (The Washing Machine), and Bava (Mask of the Demon) around that same time. Soavi, when compared to his contemporaries, was actually making the most interesting and innovative Italian horror films at that time and was reminding people why the subgenre had such an avid cult following to begin with.  In short: When Soavi came on the scene in 1987, he was the only making true Italian horror films (with one exception being Argento’s Opera which was released in 1987).

The Sect, not at all unlike Argento’s Trauma which came out at the same time, definitely feels like an Italian horror film trying to be just a little bit American – which makes sense considering what we discussed in the Bava post a couple of days ago. The industry was changing, and the gonzo/narrative-be-damned horror films the country was known for were being shuffled to the back of the line for more profitable American releases. Italian horror just wasn’t making a profit anymore, so it comes as no surprise that these filmmakers would try and make their films a little more toned down. The funny thing, though, about Soavi is that his follow up film Cemetery Man completely flies in the face of the mid-90’s American horror standard and aesthetic. Maybe it’s more Argento’s script (he also wrote The Church with Soavi) than Soavi’s direction; anyway, back to The Sect: Here’s a film that has a very basic Satanism angle to it as we open the film on the image of a broken clock (and interesting and apt image for the narrative structure of Italian horror) and then we pan back to see that we’re at a hippie commune in South Carolina circa 1970. A crazed, Manson-esque hippy crashes a flower-power powwow and freaks everyone out by reciting the worst Rolling Stone song ever, “Sympathy for the Devil.” I kid. But he does go on and on about the Stones are the important band if you really listen to them, and then he spouts some nonsense about the “truth” can be found in their music. Anyway, after staying with the commune throughout the night, the hippy completely destroys and slays the commune all in the name Beelzebub – or maybe it was Keith Richards.

This, of course, immediately reminds the viewer of the whole Manson Family thing, and the story is off and running to present day Frankfurt, Germany  where we’re introduced to Miriam (Kelly Curtis, older sister of Jaime Lee), a schoolteacher, who almost hits an old man with her car. The old man in question is named Moebius (Herbert Lom in a great, over-the-top performance), and as he’s walking off a bus – clutching a box – he is almost tagged by Miriam’s car. She offers to take Moebius to the hospital, but he declines, so she does the most natural thing ever: she invites him to her house! You gotta love horror movies. What follows is poor Miriam realizing that it was by no accident that she met Moebius and almost hit him with her car. The weird hippie cult returns, and we soon realize that Miriam has been chosen to bear the child of Satan. As the story progresses, tons of weird stuff begins to happen to Miriam that reminds the viewer why it’s so much fun to give oneself over to the ridiculous nature of Italian horror. The plot of The Sect is pretty standard stuff in the vein of Rosemary’s Baby, but Soavi – fresh off of his second-unit duties for Terry Gilliam – always litters his films with enough memorable visuals, with his distinctly unique √©lan, that I tend to forgive the banality or familiarity of such a simplistic Satan-themed plot.  In addition, he also gives depth to his characters – especially Miriam – that is rarely found in Italian horror. In this respect, the film feels very American. However the visuals – and the dark ending – give the film its distinct Italian ardor.

The moment that Moebius enters Miriam’s room and sticks a bug up her nose, The Sect turns into something even more bizarre than its hippy opening suggested. It is from this moment on that the film feels more Italian in the sense that substance is dropped in favor of style and tone of the film creeps further and further away from that of an American horror film. Soavi was brilliant at creating an otherworldly, ethereal atmosphere with his films, and The Sect is no exception. There are some moments hidden within the deliberate plot that makes the film more than worth wadding through.

One in particular is the fantastic energy found in the most mundane thing like water running through the pipes of Miriam’s house. Moebius has planted the demon seed in Miriam’s water supply, and there’s a tense scene of will-she-won’t-she when she goes to take a drink of water. As her pipes struggle to push the water through, she peers into the pipe – complete with icky slime – to see what the holdup is. It’s all very sexual and suggestive, sure, but there’s also something that’s just so entertaining about the way Soavi films the scene. When the water finally does begin to rumble and shoot through the pipes, Soavi’s camera follows it from the well (an important set piece actually…so there’s a point to this shot, it doesn’t just look cool) through the pipes and out the other end with the kind of headlong energy that reminded me of the POV shots of Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead movies.

The other scenes I’m thinking of are both dream sequences, and when you give an Italian horror director – especially someone like Soavi – the landscape of a dream to work with, they usually go crazy with the imagery. But Soavi keeps things as grounded as an eerie nightmare should be. There’s a nonsensical tone to the dreams, but it’s hard to spot because Italian horror narratives so naturally lend themselves to that tone to begin with. In one dream Miriam imagines walking through a field and looking up at the sky; and I shit you not the scene reminds me of Malick-lite. Soavi films the scene so beautifully that it’s the perfect complement – the perfect anti-Italian horror moment – that it certainly does feel displacing like a dream should be. Miriam eventually walks through all kinds of foreshadowing (hooks hanging from a tree is the big one) and eventually we cut to a POV rushing its way through what looks like someone being under bed sheets. And then…well, a big freaking bird emerges and starts pecking the hell out of Miriam. She awakes and thus begins her date with the devil to bear its child. Finally, the last dream sequence is indeed the one where Miriam is impregnated. Soavi had already filmed one creepy demonic sex scene in The Church, and here his touch is just as deft as that horrible bird returns only to eventually manifest itself in a shadow where, yes, we do indeed see the shadow of the Devil’s schlong. It’s a bizarre moment (no duh, right!) as the shadow morphs back into the bird who begins to mount Miriam in the missionary position. Of course, I have provided these two moments for you below.

Bizarre, wacky moments aside, The Sect does at times take itself a little too seriously; however it’s not enough of a problem – at least no more than any other Italian horror film, I mean God knows I’ve forgiven the likes of Fulci and Argento for much worse – that it would cause me to caution anyone from seeing the movie. Once we find out that Miriam is the chosen one to carry the Devil’s child, the film picks up its pace and becomes an intriguing mix of the Italian style Soavi does so well (and learned from Argento) and the vision and visuals that were certainly inspired by his time working for Terry Gilliam. There’s even a slight nod to Brazil in one of the film’s more gruesome scenes as Satan worshipers from across the globe (including the creepy Hippie from the beginning) reunite to tear the face off of an unsuspecting victim. As is the case with most Italian horror films, the film is meant to be experienced, not explained; it’s more of a visceral experience that laughs in the face of literal, generic plot summation. This can be infuriating for fans of the horror genre, but once one inundates themselves in the gory, neon waters of Italian horror, something like The Sect becomes more palatable. It isn’t Soavi’s best film – it’s a bit too labored at points to really usurp something so crisply well-made like Stagefright – but damn if it isn’t a brilliant mess of a film because when the film is on, it’s a downright perfectly executed Italian horror.

Extra stills because I just can't help myself when it comes to a Soavi movie:


  1. Damn dude, cant believe you actually got to see this one! I've been dying to check out for years and years! I am a huge Soavi fan! I love all of his movies, but I havent been able to see this one because it hasnt been released on dvd...sadly.

    But those pics you posted are the first taste of the visuals I can come to expect from this movie.

    If I was to judge it on visuals alone, I'd say that an awesome movie awaits for me, if I ever get the chance to check it out.

    Thanks for the awesome review!

  2. I like Sect but I prefer The Church as it is a bit more structured and rounded compared to the sometimes uneven Sect. The photography of Church is also a bit more dreamlike which adds to the atmosphere.