The Church (1989)

MARCH 11, 2009

GENRE: ITALIAN, SUPERNATURAL
SOURCE: DVD (OWN COLLECTION)

The other day I was mocking the Italians’ penchant for confusing people by changing the names of their movies in order to get them sold in other territories (i.e. by calling them sequels to movies that they don’t have a goddamn thing to do with). But I think their shenanigans with Demons 3 takes the cake, as there are at least THREE movies floating around under that title, NONE of which are really connected to the series. The Church (Italian: La Chiesa) is one of the three, and is usually considered the best overall film (the other two being Black Demons and The Ogre, the latter being the one US audiences are probably most familiar with as a Demons sequel).

And that is interesting, because unlike the other two films, The Church began life as a legitimate sequel, but director Michele Soavi didn’t want to “stoop” to the level of those movies, and rewrote it to be its own thing (it didn’t stop some foreign distributors from calling it Demons 3: The Church though). So you have a legit sequel that gets changed to be its own thing, and probably the majority of people that have seen it have done so because of its connection that is no longer there. I say again, bless the Italian horror industry.

Personally, I prefer the regular Demons movies. The Church isn’t bad, but it’s awfully slow, and never really builds to a satisfying climax. Around the one hour mark, a traditionally varied group of folks get trapped inside the church (including a Demons-esque elderly couple, and a pair of kids with a motorcycle), and I thought all hell would break loose, but the pace doesn’t pick up at all. There are a couple of stand alone setpieces in which someone is killed, but no traditional “outbreak”. Even the slower Fulci movies had a big zombie finish. In this, several people die when the church begins to collapse, but we don’t even know that until an epilogue tells us.

The reason this bugged me is the fact that the setup involves the church being built on a mass grave. The opening scene has the Inquisition killing an entire village, and all the bodies, plus a horse, are dumped together. I spent the whole movie wondering when the zombie horse would lead a charge of zombie peasants, but it never came to be, which means that the first five minutes of the movie are also its most exciting. There’s a great moment in which a mother hides her baby in a basket under a table. So you’re like ah, this baby grows up to be the hero or whatever”, but pretty much by the time I had completed the thought, a horse runs over, does its leg-kicking thing, and then tramples the basket, with a little splash of blood confirming the infanticide.

Speaking of non-heroes, Soavi also pulls a Psycho and kills off the would-be hero (the traditional visiting American who notices something is amiss) halfway through. Unfortunately, he never really replaces him with anyone else. There’s a priest named Gus who sort of takes over, and there’s a random, clunkily inserted scene of him using a bow and arrow during the first act that seems to exist solely to let us know he’s a badass and thus worthy of being our hero. But he doesn’t do anything! At the end of the movie he sees all the possessed folks chanting, as well as a goat/horse/demon thing fucking the shit out of a broad, but he just walks away.

But that just brings us back to the main problem of the movie: there’s no finale. I kept looking at the time remaining display during the final reel, baffled as to how there could only be 15, 10, 5 minutes left of the film without anything really kicking into high gear. And it’s a shame, because it starts off pretty great, with lots of atmosphere and a welcome bit of Prince of Darkness feel to the proceedings. Soavi’s a great director too, the Argento influence is obvious, but he gives it its own feel. And Goblin’s score is top notch, I would say it’s probably the best of theirs I have heard in a non-Argento movie (though Argento produced and co-wrote).

And, of course, there’s just the whole Italian-y feeling of the whole thing. There’s a mural in a church depicting people being murdered by goat devils, a mother reminding her husband to chop the onions as he is dragging their hysterical daughter around and shoving soap in her mouth, and a small role by Giovanni Lombardo Radice (yay!). There are also two moments that made me remember why I love illogical cinema in the first place. One is of a little fat kid who suddenly yells “Hi-yo Silver, away!” and runs up the main aisle of the church (I don’t think we ever see him again). The other is when the aforementioned little girl (Asia Argento - who else?) runs into a bride with the green soap foaming out of her mouth, and thus smears it all over the bride’s wedding dress. Now, any normal bride would cry, shriek, yell at people who had nothing to do with the accident, and more than likely remove the head of the little girl. But this is an Italian horror movie from the 80s, so what does she do? Nothing. She sort of laughs and continues with her photo shoot, green soapy smear be damned. It’s breathtaking.

Plus, the movie offers one of my all time favorite death scenes - a girl is being lowered into a tunnel when she sees two glowing orbs approaching. As her eyes adjust to the darkness, she realizes that it’s a subway car, but before she can be pulled up... well, see for yourself:


And before you bitch about spoilers, I took that shot from the damn trailer, which also gives away just about every other highlight in the movie. It’s also hilariously muted, simply playing music the entire time in order to hide the Italian dialogue and/or bad dubbing. Yet this didn’t stop the editor from cutting in shots of people simply talking with nothing “cool” occurring behind or around them. The only other extra is a bio of Soavi, which is too brief to be of much use and spends more time on the films he didn’t direct than the ones he did.

I think I will like this one more on a second viewing. There’s a lot of cool shit here, and now that I know that there’s no big finale, I can instead focus on the things that do work well and maybe find its lapses a little easier to forgive. Luckily it’s been dubbed into English, so I don’t have to worry about forgetting to read the subs, like I often do (I like looking at what’s actually happening!).

What say you?

7 comments:

  1. The Church has always had a special place in my heart. It is arguably more artistic than a majority of the shlocky horror rip-offs oozing out of Italy at the time, and offers both excellent locales and costuming. All that being said, your comments on the pacing, characters, and structure are all dead accurate, which does make the overall appeal of the film suffer a bit. Of the three Demons 3 offerings, The Church is leaps ahead of the others (outside of the gratuitous eyeball ripping in Black Demons). Been reading daily BC, love the reviews!!

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  2. Might have to revisit this one myself as I haven't seen it since it first came out.

    On a separate note I was kind of reminded of your New Bev descriptions last weekend when I went to a kind of mini horror festival here in Madrid, where they were showing five or six films a day. We went to see Let The Right One In (but they also had stuff like Midnight Meat Train and Eden Lake as well as The Cottage and the premiere - in Spain - of Watchmen) and there was lots of cheering and heckling coming from large parts of the audience.

    And the film was good too :-)

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  3. It wasn't the Inquisition that killed the villagers. It was the Teutonic Knights (crusaders). Also, the horse that dies at the beginning continues to haunt the church as an invisible spirit. An Italian film doesn't have to have zombies to be a good horror flick. Sometimes what you don't see is more frightening than what you do.

    Honestly, I have to say your review really comes across like you wanted to see violence, action and zombies. This is a creeper of a movie with an emphasis on atmosphere, with powerful images and music. It's not meant to be a typical b-horror zombie flick. If it's too much for you, perhaps you should just stick to the hundreds of Italian zombie films from that time period.

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  4. It wasn't the Inquisition that killed the villagers. It was the Teutonic Knights (crusaders). Also, the horse that dies at the beginning continues to haunt the church as an invisible spirit. An Italian film doesn't have to have zombies to be a good horror flick. Sometimes what you don't see is more frightening than what you do.

    Honestly, I have to say your review really comes across like you wanted to see violence, action and zombies. This is a creeper of a movie with an emphasis on atmosphere, with powerful images and music. It's not meant to be a typical b-horror zombie flick. If it's too much for you, perhaps you should just stick to films from Fulci.

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  5. No, in fact I say several times during the review that I liked the movie. I just didn't like how it just sort of ended without any real climax. I also like a lot of Giallo films, none of which have zombies, so your comment that "An Italian film doesn't have to have zombies to be a good horror flick." is sort of pointlessly argumentative.

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  6. You really need to watch "The Sect", it's another absolutely of no relation "Demons" movie/sequel (its alt. title being "The Sect: Demons 4") directed again by Michele Soavi, but it is even better than "The Church" IMHO. To be honest I was actually floored by how good it was when I first watched it. The story is excellent, it's super creepy, and it keeps you guessing all the way through! The acting is above-par as well. I'll even go as far as to say that it is one of the most well thought out and shocking horror movies that I have seen in a VERY LONG time. I seriously suggest you seek it out!

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  7. This was a mild disappointment for me, because the only other Michele Soavi film I've seen is Dellamorte Dellamore. This one just wasn't as interesting, but I guess its not really fair to compare the two. How has no one mentioned the scene where one schoolboy tells the other that when he lies down to sleep his face will look like the one he loves? I implore you to help me understand this scene.

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