Review: The Church (1989)

Crimson Quill’s Appraisal #733

Number of Views: One
Release Date: March 10, 1989
Sub-Genre: Supernatural
Country of Origin: Italy
Budget: $3,500,000
Running Time: 110 minutes
Director: Michele Soavi
Producers: Dario Argento, Mario Cecchi Gori, Vittorio Cecchi Gori
Screenplay: Dario Argento, Michele Soavi, Franco Ferrini, Dardano Sacchetti (uncredited), Lamberto Bava (uncredited), Fabrizio Bava (prologue)
Based on The Treasure of Abbot Thomas by M.R. James
Special Effects: Sergio Stivaletti, Renato Agostini, Danilo Bollettini, Massimo Cristofanelli
Cinematography: Renato Tafuri
Score: Keith Emerson, Philip Glass, Goblin, Fabio Pignatelli
Editing: Franco Fraticelli
Studios: ADC Films, Cecchi Gori Group Tiger Cinematografica, Reteitalia
Distributor: Cecchi Gori Distribuzione
Stars: Hugh Quarshie, Tomas Arana, Barbara Cupisti, Asia Argento, Giovanni Lombardo Radice, Feodor Chaliapin Jr., Antonella Vitale, Roberto Caruso, Roberto Corbiletto, Alina De Simone, Olivia Cupisti, Gianfranco De Grassi

Suggested Audio Jukebox

[1] One Minute SilenceHoly Man”

[2] Keith Emerson “The Church”

[3] Pat Benatar “Hell Is For Children”

[4] Fabio Pignatelli “La Chiesa”

It’s rare for me to step foot on sacred ground. Let’s not bludgeon the bishop here, I don’t bear the three-digit mark of him downstairs and neither is there a demented nanny lurking in my pantry. But it’s never really been my scene if I’m honest. As a young boy, my mother packed me off to Sunday school every week and I listened to every last sermon but, by the time I came of age, I’d sussed out that church going simply wasn’t for me. In my defense, I’m far from an atheist and have a number of different religious beliefs that I practice wherever possible. However, I choose to do so in my own private quarters and don’t need to perch myself on a pew to gain higher learning. You can’t really blame me for dissociating myself with these places of worship as there are so many different religions bidding for our commitment and not all of them can be right. To me, faith in a greater power is something I look at metaphorically and I don’t lose a wink of sleep over seeing things this way.

It doesn’t help that most of the world’s war stems from religious dispute. Believe in our deity or be damned eternally seems to be the running theme and I don’t buy into that narrow-minded claptrap one iota. You see, the bricks and mortar of most churches conceal all manner of dirty little secrets and, if confessional booths had the ability to report as well as observe, then I’m sure they’d have plenty of stories to tell about what really goes on behind the curtain. It’s not exclusive to the modern-day as I’m reasonably certain that wrongdoing stretches farther back than any biblical publication could ever hope to record. But the thing about history is that it has a tendency to repeat itself and that delivers us rather tidily to today’s chosen evil.

Respected Italian filmmaker Michele Soavi never quite managed to be regarded as one of the greats and I find that rather mind-boggling if I’m swearing on the good book. While the likes of Mario Bava, Dario Argento and Sergio Martino are quite rightly positioned on their pedestals, Soavi is often overlooked when speaking of the masters. I’d imagine it has something to do with the fact that he got in on the act rather late in the day and his flush period played out when horror was already winding down for its decade long slumber. However, a number of Soavi’s works from 1987 to 1994 were more than notable and one in particular was a hands-down spag-bol masterpiece.

His directorial debut Stagefright came as a bolt right out of the blue as slasher was all but dead and buried when it took centre stage in ’87. Original it most certainly wasn’t but it was both hugely enjoyable and chock-full of raw potential. Indeed, along with Lamberto Bava’s Demons, I consider this wonderful little movie the ideal starting point for those looking to indulge in Italian horror cinema.

The Sect was none too shabby either, madder than a bag of methed-up minks (it featured a sinister bunny who could switch channels with a TV remote), but in no way a disgrace to the name he was building for himself. But it was Soavi’s last truly notable motion picture in ’94 that was truly the jewel in his crown.

Dellamorte Dellamore (or The Cemetery Man to use its Stateside title) was quite unlike any other film that preceded it or that has emerged since, come to think about it. A true one-off, it saw English thespian Rupert Everett on irresistible form as the titular gravedigger and had a tone all of its very own.

Walking a decidedly slender line between gruesome and goofball, it did so with all the grace and poise of a prima ballerina and, in my humble opinion, is one of the finest movies ever to originate from Italia. I shit you not, it really is that good. Regrettably, it arrived at the party long after the streamers had been taken down and few have ever sampled its divine brilliance.

Sandwiched in-between the above gemstones was the incredibly ambitious occult chiller, The Church, which was originally intended as the official second sequel to Demons funnily enough. In truth, it had more in common with John Carpenter’s sacrificial pot-boiler Prince of Darkness than Bava’s schlockfest and was more than capable of standing on its own merits. Soavi was provided with a rather luxurious $3.5 million kitty for this one and, having already proved his worth with Stagefright, few could argue that he wasn’t deserving of such an opportunity to further excel through his art. Argento was very much invested creatively and also lent his screenwriting talents as well as offering up his own flesh and blood as sacrificial lamb.

This wasn’t 13-year-old Asia Argento’s first feature film as she had already cut her milk teeth on Demons 2 three years previous. But it was something of a breakout role in a credible up-and-comer capacity and her character Lotte was downright pivotal to proceedings. The rest of the cast comprised the likes of Hugh Quarshie, Tomas Arana, Feodor Chaliapin Jr., Giovanni Lombardo Radice and, after putting in a final girl shift already for Stagefright, the stunning Barbara Cupisti. That said, while the personnel involved were only too willing to be placed under oath, it was the ungodly cathedral itself that truly deserved top billing.

Our story bolts out of the gate in 12th century medieval Germany, where an entire village are unceremoniously massacred by the Teutonic Knights, for allegedly being in league with the devil. The bodies are then tossed into a giant death pit and a place of worship then built on the site, with the intention of sanctifying the ground and trapping any malevolent spirits within for all eternity.

Having watched Tobe Hooper’s Poltergeist at the tender age of ten, I know only too well what a dick move it can be erecting a construct over what is essentially a mass grave. However, one glance through the history books makes it crystal clear the kind of evil that men do when supposedly defending the church. The SS had to get their inspiration from somewhere right?

Anyhoots, that’s quite enough Holy Grail bullshit for one communion, how about we skip forward to the present day and find out how things are going within the cathedral’s walls? It would appear rather swimmingly, although all that could be about to change in the time it takes a communion wafer to dissolve. You see, as near-sighted luck would have it, inquisitive historian Evan (Arana) has stumbled upon a manuscript on his very first day at work and it tells of a forbidden secret tucked away beneath a stone of seven eyes down in the crypt.

His significant other Lisa (Cupisti) is responsible for the restoration of all the church’s many frescoes and about to be placed in mortal peril, but that’s not even it’s a busy day the half of it as shit’s about to turn decidedly unholy.

By this point, Evan has unwittingly unleashed this pent-up vengeful spirits and the cathedral has been transformed into a cloister; while it works out what kind of fiendishly inventive demises it can dream up for its sorry patrons. Let’s perform a quick head check shall we?

Well in addition to Father Gus (Quarshie), the reverend (Radice), the sacristan’s young daughter Lottie (Argento), and the shady looking bishop (Chaliapin, Jr.) who appears to know a great deal more than he’s letting on; we also have a newly wed bride and groom who have selected this formerly hallowed ground to snap their wedding photos and…wait for it…a group of snot-nosed ankle-biters on a field trip. Can you hear me rubbing my hands together as we speak?

Okay so, while I’m sworn under oath, I guess I should come clean about why the addition of these young whippersnappers fills me with glee unbridled. Nothing pleases me more than mass cinematic genocide when children are implicated. I urge you to hone in on the word “cinematic” as the last thing I’d ever desire is to see little cherubs perish.

However, when it comes to the movies, if they’re old enough to plead, then they’re old enough to bleed and we all know those Italians see neither harm in foul in scalping some underage calves and banishing the little scallywags to their chambers, minus spleens. Don’t be glum kiddiwinks, I still believe you’re the future and all that malarkey. But this is horror dagnabbit and here thou shall suffer greatly. Can I trouble you for that amen now?

The Church is literally all over the place and that’s actually kind of an endorsement as Soavi has never been one to follow convention. Seldom has a tone changed so forcefully as it does here in the final third and what a rip-roaring rollercoaster ride that is.

The threat manifests any way it sees fit, possessing souls like bus conductor amassing his stub quota, and playing tricks on the minds of our fast-whittling survivors. There is no top dog present here (although we do get a philandering incubus with the head of a goat, in case you were curious), and instead, the whisperings of a thousand cursed souls can be heard bouncing off walls from vestry to spire.

Soavi also provides us ample food for thought, dealing in revelation and concealment (one of which was a book in the New Testament and the other would surely have made the sequel had it ever made it to print). Should the evil in question escape these stone walls, then the repercussions for the outside world don’t even bear thinking about.

Characters are asked to consider their faith and take a look at the larger picture; and these kinds of spiritual dilemmas add an additional dimension to what are otherwise some fairly flimsy characters. As I touched on earlier, the true star of The Church is its titular construct and Soavi never forgets that, filling it to overspilling with as much debauchery as he has can possibly conjure.

Ultimately, The Church falls agonizingly short of the standard set in his finest hours and its higgledy-piggledy flavor may be too astringent for certain palates. Like Prince of Darkness, it doesn’t fare up quite so well to closer scrutiny, but it is similarly bat-shit crazy and just as deserving of mild praise. Speaking of which, I was baptized Christian at the age of thirteen, just prior to straying the flock, and early forties by the time I finally tracked a copy of this down.

Had I known thirty years back what I do now, then I reckon we could have sped up the whole process. I’ll likely be damned for saying this, but you can stick your communion wafers where the choir don’t sing if you think I’m attending midnight mass after this savage sermon. How many Hail Mary’s do you reckon that’ll set me back? CHRIST ALMIGHTY! That’s extortionate. Forgive me Father, moment of weakness.

Crimson Quill’s Judgement: 7/10

Grue Factor: 4/5

For the Grue-Guzzlers: Pull up a pew fellow sinners as those cups shall runneth over when you feast your peepers on this flock of lambs being slaughtered. Faces are peeled, faces sucked, throats lanced, bodies impaled, heads lopped off, and young blood spilled. But the crowning moment entails potentially the most disturbing group hug ever captured on film (outside of Brian Yuzna’s Society shunt of course). Sergio Stivaletti’s work here is simply magnifique.

For the Pelt-Nuzzlers: Prior to us sinking to the depths as is commonplace and before you go getting any ideas, I feel duty bound to inform you that Asia wasn’t even wearing a bra yet at the time of filming. This one is all about Barbara and Cupisti goes all in for sin, although it’s not her doing the entering. Stripped bare and sprawled across an altar, she receives a thorough basting courtesy of a gruff goat-headed incubus and I’d hazard a guess that she still wakes drenched in cold sweat over that particular bedpost notch now. Let’s just hope no seeds were sown or else we could be hearing the trot of tiny hooves any time now, although I’m sure that nice Mr. Hell Goat could recommend a good nanny. Is this thing turned on?

Read Stagefright Appraisal
Read The Sect Appraisal
Read Dellamorte Dellamore Appraisal
Read Mother of Tears Appraisal

Richard Charles Stevens

Keeper of The Crimson Quill

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