The Church (1989)

Michele Soavi directed four horror films from 1987 to 1994, starting with Stagefright and ending with Cemetary Man that continued the rich tradition of Italian horror. With training from Joe D’Amato and Dario Argento, as well as second unit work on two Terry Gilliam films, he emerged as a unique presence with an eye that combines those aforementioned traditions with a gaze toward the art film and the new.

Some considered this movie a sequel to the Demons series of films, with each movie all based around one cursed place. Demons was all about a movie theater (including Soavi as the Man in the Mask that lures people to their doom) and Demons 2 concerns an apartment building. There are also a million other movies that are and are not connected to that series that only Joe Bob Briggs can properly explain.

The film opens with the history of the church. Upon finding stigmata on the foot of a village girl, Teutonic Knights wipe out a village — man, woman, child and animal — burying them in a mass grave. It seems the devil had infiltrated the entire town and this was the only way to deal with it. One villager (Asia Argento) tries to escape and is impaled and tossed into the grave. The knights cover the grave with crosses and build a church upon it.

In modern times, we meet Lotte (Argento, again), the daughter of the church’s sacristan, Hermann; Evan, the new librarian who starts a relationship with Lisa (Barbara Cupisti, Stagefright, Cemetary Man), an artist restoring the artwork in the church; the bishop; the reverend (Giovanni Lombardo Radice, The Omen, City of the Living DeadHouse on the Edge of the Park) and Father Gus (Hugh Quarshie, NightbreedStar Wars: The Phantom Menace).

The cathedral is filled with secret pathways that Lotte uses to go out clubbing, before coming back and getting slapped by her father for smelling like cigarettes and booze. There’s also a rumbling, bubbling undercurrent of pure evil presided over by black-robed monks.

Evan and Lisa may be sneaking off and making love, but he is only really in love with learning more of the church. As she finds his way to the stone with the seven eyes, he kneels before the status and tears his own heart out, holding it above his head as it beats its last, while we’re treated to fast-moving visuals of the pulsating city above the church set to the music of Philip Glass (The Church also features music by Keith Emerson and Goblin).

As the possession of Evan increases — yes, ripping out his own heart was just the start — we’re treated to a litany of insane images. Lisa is taken by a demonic goat. An elderly couple bickers and then the wife is found using her husband’s head to ring a church bell. A man kills himself with a jackhammer. A bridal party photo shoot ends with the bride model impaled. A woman is absolutely destroyed by a subway train. A giant flesh tower of dead bodies rises as the mechanics of the church kick in, trapping everyone there with death the only escape. Oh yeah — there’s also a flashback to the original builder of the church being impaled on his mechanical security system.

The Church is less about a narrative flow and more about a collection of images and moments that add up to one impressive smorgasbord. Soavi saw the other Demons films as “pizza schlock” and ended his artistic relationship with Argento with this film. Yet he was contending with a script that had a ton of other writers, including Argento, Soavi, Franco Ferrini, Lamberto Bava, Dardano Sacchetti (who wrote nearly every major Fulci movie, as well as A Bay of Blood and Shock), Fabrizio Bava and Nick Alexander. What emerges is a wild exercise in style, featuring a multitude of references to artwork both religious and modern, including the painting “Vampire’s Kiss” by Boris Vallejo.

If you’re expecting a movie that’s easy to follow, I suggest you find another one to watch. But if you’re searching for arresting visuals and a technically proficient director who has a ton of visual tricks he wants to blow your mind with, then by all means, get ready to experience The Church.

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