Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Unearth the Evil that Lives Beneath THE CHURCH

The Church (1989)
Director: Michele Soavi
Rating: 8 / 10
Seen via: Blue Underground DVD

In medieval Germany, a band of Teutonic knights encounters a gathering of pagan heretics and slaughters them, dumping them in a pit to rot. To contain their evil and keep them from rising from the mass grave, they're sealed in the ground with holy symbols, and a cathedral is built on the gravesite. There they remain until modern times, when a visiting scholar arrives at the cathedral to study the ancient documents held in its library. Will his curiosity unlock the secrets that have been literally buried for centuries?

It sounds like a pretty standard premise for a horror film, but it's the way in which director Michele Soavi (Cemetery Man) handles that sets it apart. If Soavi's name isn't enough to spark interest, The Church also features music by Goblin (in one of their later incarnations), and stars a young Asia Argento, whose father Dario was heavily involved in the film's production. Even with this many stars of Italian horror aligning, the film could have easily gone astray. The Church was adapted from the script of what would have been the third film in Lamberto Bava's Demons series, and in less talented hands it could have been another low-grade franchise entry. Fragments of the Demons formula remain, particularly toward the latter half of the film when a diverse group of people find themselves trapped in a building with an evil that's spread through wounds. Where the previous films culminated in giant action-packed finales, The Church moves forward in fits and starts, gradually unearthing the arcane history of its setting and drenching the proceedings in alluring visuals and subversive imagery.

The Church lulls you into complacency and then interrupts it abruptly with phantasmagoric violence and visions of infernal terror. It lifts imagery from sources as diverse as renaissance wood-carvings and Boris Vallejo paintings, but manages to unify them all in a consistently dreamlike atmosphere. Soavi doesn't have any qualms about taking his time with the plot, and chooses to indulge his lavish set-pieces, which boast some seriously impressive practical effects. Ask yourself this: how often does a movie featuring demons actually show you some demons? Here they're portrayed in all their disturbing glory.

Where most films involving demonic forces treat them as external entities that have been invoked or provoked in some way to enter our world and wreak havoc, the evil in The Church comes not from outside our world but from its past. Far more awful than the peaceful pagan cult in the opening of the film is their slaughter at the hands of the medieval church. Their second coming is a reckoning, a inevitable balancing of the scales and a revealing of long-buried secrets. If there's any evil here, it's the church itself.

While the pacing might be offputting to some, the wonders on display here are just too weird and unsettling to make for a boring film. I'd been saving The Church for a while because I had a feeling it'd be something special. I wasn't wrong.


  1. This movie is a total mind-blower, as you point out. Totally weird, hypnotic and shocking - This would make a great double-feature with Michael Mann's The Keep (though that's a deeply flawed movie, and this one pretty much rocks - but they'd be interesting to compare/contrast)...

    1. I definitely feel like this one would benefit from a rewatch, since so much of it caught me off guard the first time through. I haven't seen The Keep, so thanks for the recommendation! Doesn't look like it has made it onto DVD yet, but it's streamable on Amazon Instant...

  2. Nice review. This movie was completely bugnuts insane, and I enjoyed it more than I ever expected to.

    I loved the non sequitur comments from the older lady who was waiting for her onions. Not sure how that fit into the rest of the plot, but who cares?

    1. Thanks, Barry. I think my favorite "what the hell" moment was when one of the injured school kids has a conversation with his friend about how your best friend's face will look like yours when he's sleeping. I'm still trying to figure out the significance of that...

  3. One of my all-time favorite Italian horror films. The set up of all the victims is hilariously awful--in the vein of the DEMONS films--but it works too as just another one of the many non-sequiturs in the film that make one scratch their head. There is so much in Soavi's film that makes one's jaw drop with a "what-the-hell-is-happening-right-now" reaction. I love the use of Philip Glass' "Floe" during the one scene where the guy rips his own heart out and then speeds through the streets. In fact, it's one of the best Italian horror films I've seen in terms of its use of music--just a great musical score altogether. And yes, Soavi really knew how to conjure up some memorable images. I love the screengrab you use of the giant glob of bodies that rises up from beneath the church. Just a great, unsettling image.

    Glad to hear there's another fan of this one. I still think it's an under-seen classic of the subgenre, and I really hope more and more people discover it.

    Great review!

    1. Hey, Kevin - thanks for reading and sorry for my delayed response!

      I didn't mention much about the music in the review, but I also really enjoyed the score. The heart-ripping scene caught me totally off guard (like a lot of the sequences, really). I was also getting ready for a Demons-esque bloodbath once all the different characters started getting introduced, but... nope. I like the way it turned out though - way more interesting than the run-of-the-mill Italian sleaze.

      100% agreement - more people should watch this film!