Part of the Italian Horror Blogathon at Hugo Stiglitz Makes Movies

Michele Soavi only made four horror films in a career that wasn't very long (he took many years off to care for his unwell son), which surely explains why his profile isn't higher. There's no good argument, certainly not one based on those of his films which I have seen (which does not include the third, The Sect from 1991), why he shouldn't be spoken of with every bit of the enthusiasm that horror fans toss at Dario Argento and Lucio Fulci. Especially considering that Soavi's work was all done in the '80s and '90s, when those men were at or heading towards their career nadirs.

There's no more vivid example of how much higher than the rest of the industry he was flying than The Church, produced by Argento (Soavi's mentor), who also contributed the story, and who intended for the film to serve as the third entry in the trilogy begun by Demons and Demons 2, also produced by Argento, and directed by Mario Bava's son Lamberto. I enjoy those movies more than most people, and certainly more than they deserve, but the titanic gulf in quality between them and The Church is almost impossible to quantify, and I think it's fair to regard the movie as Soavi's attempt to prove that you could take something as junky as the plot for Demons 3 and turn it into horror art on the level of anything produced in Italy's long and massively respectable tradition of fantastically visual genre films. Certainly, if you hold it at the right angle and squint, you can see exactly how this was meant to fit in with the first two ("demons in a movie theater", "demons in an apartment complex", and now "demons in church"; the general shape of the plot structure is even the same, with the demon outbreak happening shortly after the halfway point). And just as certainly, Soavi does everything in his power to keep the film from sinking to their level; there's only so much that can be done with a movie that has to include the questionable monster effects that pop up in the last 40 minutes of The Church, but within those limits, Soavi was able to make a gorgeous neo-Gothic horror film that, like his debut, StageFright: Aquarius, takes its cues from an established genre and style, but manages to be something far different and more personal than that genre would ordinarily permit (and, in fact, Soavi's efforts to push this film in new directions started a schism between Argento and himself).

That we're in the middle of something special is quite obvious from the very first scene, which should not work, and has not worked in many, many films: somewhere in the Middle Ages, a group of Teutonic Knights has concluded that a village has a Satanist problem, and they go about killing everyone and everything, dumping their bodies into a pit and covering it with a huge stone cross to seal in the evil. It's hokey as all fuck, and not helped by a vigorously synthetic piece of adventure music on the soundtrack (I'll have more to say about the score later), but the way Soavi shoots it is so haunting and poetic that it manages to work regardless of how much it acts like every cheap fantasy movie of the '80s or '90s. It's both dreamy and vivid, cut by editor Franco Fraticelli in a particularly implicit and elliptical way to give the whole thing a distinctly "off" feeling, and Soavi and his cinematographer, Renato Tafuri, find unique ways to stage the action to give it that much more of a detached, at times impressionistic quality. Say what you will about cheesy fantasy movies, not many of them would come up with such a striking image as the POV from a Knight's helmet, looking through the cross-shaped visor at his demon prey:

Cross imagery, as you'd expect from something called The Church and produced by a Catholic-majority country, is found throughout the film. Not usually in a specifically religious way (it's not a terribly Christian film, all things considered), but in a manner that beautifully ties the whole thing together visually - Soavi, in fact, finds a whole lot of different ways to tie the movie together, including the very deliberate use of blue lighting, center-framed images of horrible beings, and a certain similarity between all the film's wide shots of its various interior spaces that gives the whole thing a sense of structure and repetition that firstly, emphasises the ritualistic nature of what happens in the plot and clarifies that this is essentially a film about order versus chaos, and secondly, gives shape to a movie that is absolutely written as "stuff happens involving different people OH MY GOD DEMONS the end". I don't even quite know how to synopsise the plot: in the present day, there's a man, Evan (Thomas Arana) who's just been hired as librarian at the church built over the site of the Knights massacre. There's an art historian, Lisa (Barbara Cupisiti), working on restoring the heavily damaged art throughout the church. There is a little girl, Lotte (Asia Argento, all of 12 years old, which I assume would not have prevented her father from putting her in a nude scene, if he was directing), who looks exactly like the last of the Knights' victims, daughter of the church's characters, who likes to sneak around and see things she oughtn't. There are priests scuttling about, worrying about the oncoming evil that is always waiting to burst out of the church.

As a story, The Church doesn't even function, let alone function well, but as much as any Italian horror film I have ever seen, it's not about story but about how Soavi creates a total, apocalyptic sense of dread that never leaves even the most domestic moments of the film, or its handful of moments of comedy (a scene I deeply treasure: as Evan studies an ancient parchment of unlocking total evil, Lisa - the two are lovers by this point - watches him, bored, before picking up a Mickey Mouse comic). It helps that the church itself is such a threatening, brooding presence, a beautiful combination of a genuine old cathedral and terrific sets designed by Massimo Antonello Geleng, and even the most innocuous moments, and blandest set-ups looking through the inside of the sanctuary have been shot by Tafuri to look so dark and threatening. In the places where there's actually creepy stuff (like the weirdly terrifying statues of monks, their faces invisible beneath hoods), this same aesthetic pays off in moments that are far creepier than they have a right to be.

When it comes time to actually start paying off all this mood by showcasing the real demons and devils, Soavi is even better. The chances of The Church turning into tacky crap must have been high, to judge from the uniformly low quality of the monsters we see, but Soavi modulates this by showing them in what amount to freeze frame jump scares that manage to both situate the horror inside characters' minds (and thus make it more psychological than paranormal) and to make the weirdness of the props an asset (no such luck with a lengthy shot of his devil costume near the end, though by that point the film has built up enough mood that it plays as something strange and alien rather than as a wobbly movie effect). And he also spends the most time lingering on the single best effect, a pile of bodies rising from Hell itself that looks more like Bosch than anything out of Fulci or even Argento's more freely violent horror.

The effect of all this is a depiction of apocalyptic horror that's not exactly like anything else, no matter how many movies it has affinities with. It isn't as overwhelming as, say, The Beyond, but it's in the same ballpark: a film so full of inexplicable and terrifying moments that it feels like the whole world is crumbling. If I prefer that be done in the more cosmic structure that Fulci sets his own cinematic hellscapes, that's not to say that Soavi's isn't fantastic; indeed, by limiting himself to a single building that devours and destroys, he's able to make his film more specific and effective on a human scale, instead of simply plunging us into an endless nightmare.

And now, if I may close things out, the score: performed and composed by Keith Emerson and Argento's beloved Goblin, the music is generally good when it's not too audibly artificial, but the thing that really stands out is the use of several instantly-recognisable cues, motifs, and complete passages from Philip Glass's Koyaanisqatsi score. I'll freely admit that the first time I saw the movie, that's all I was able to think about, and it absolutely took me out of the experience: why is Goblin playing Philip Glass? All I can think of is highway traffic now! A second viewing hasn't convinced me that this is the best choice that could have been made, but I have to admit that absent my own immediate associations with some of the most instantly-recognisable music of the '80s, it works within the film: the driving, mechanical urgency of the music, given a savage electronic gloss by the artists performing it here, perfectly evokes the constant, pulsating tension that doesn't abandon the movie until beyond its final shot. Whatever else is true of the music, The Church would be a far less intense experience without it, and I would not want to change any element of this film for any reason.