Michele Soavi will always have a place in horror history as the man who gave us the underrated slasher StageFright (1987) and the beautifully weird Dellamorte Dellamore (1994). The Church (1989) and The Sect (1989), which have both been given beautiful HD restorations courtesy of Shameless, sit in between those two classics and are both flawed but fascinating. Provided your interests align with the filmmaker’s, of course.
Both films were co-written by Dario Argento and his influence is quite evident, especially in the latter, while The Church has even been labelled as an unofficial third Demons movie (despite Soavi’s repeated protests). When a band of Teutonic knights slaughter a village full of suspected witches, they naturally build a giant church on top of it. There’s been a terrifying curse waiting to explode from the vaults below ever since, and the combination of excavations and a curious librarian (Tomas Arena) unleashes all manner of nightmarish sex demons.
It’s surprisingly slow but Soavi does create a nicely feverish atmosphere with a great set, Renato Tafuri’s cinematography and a soundtrack from the combined talents of Keith Emerson, Philip Glass and Goblin. The build-up pays off with a second half full of delirious exposition, strange rubber monsters and elaborate schlock as the assembled cannon fodder (including a school group, a fashion shoot crew and some bikers) meet their gruesome fates. It is a strange beast, though, and it feels as though no one involved could quite decide what they were going for. However, the collision of styles and interests makes for an enjoyable, if somewhat muddled, experience.
The same is mostly true of The Sect (also known as The Devil’s Daughter), which is less successful but boasts enough bizarre set pieces, shifty animals and implausibly labyrinthine cellars to make it worth a look. Kelly Curtis plays Miriam, a teacher living in Frankfurt who rescues a frail old man (Herbert Lom) after running him over. However, this sinister gent turns out to have decidedly Satanic plans for her.
At first glance, it seems like The Sect will be more grounded than its predecessor (the bloody prologue is set in the 70s rather than the Middle Ages), but it’s just as bizarre once it gets going. Much like his mentor Argento, Soavi isn’t one to put logic before style, and he and cinematographer Raffaele Mertes deliver some beautifully constructed dream sequences, skin-crawling gore and ludicrous POV shots (one from a beetle going up Miriam’s nose as she sleeps). Like The Church, it’s a good half-hour too long, and there are a couple of moments that cross the line between enjoyably outrageous to decidedly grubby, but there’s a great atmosphere, faces getting ripped off, hearts getting put into pockets and a rabbit that may or may not be malevolent. If you thought Argento’s Trauma could do with more re-animated corpses and sexually aggressive devil herons, The Sect is for you.
We wouldn’t suggest that newcomers to Soavi’s work should start here, but if you’ve seen the classics and are looking for more, there’s plenty of stylish insanity here and the restorations are very well done. Even if neither film matches the heights of his best work, both show off his underrated skill as a visual stylist and his magnificent unpredictability as a storyteller. These are essential upgrades for Soavi devotees, and fans of outlandish genre cinema should certainly treat themselves, although others may want to approach with caution.
The Church and The Sect are available now on Blu-ray from Shameless Films. Keep up with the latest genre news with the new issue of SciFiNow.