The Church Review
In the Middle Ages, a group of Teutonic knights rampage across the countryside on horseback, completely obliterating a community that they believe to be infested with witchcraft. As the corpses of men, women, children and animals are flung into a huge pit, the leader of the knights decrees that a magnificent cathedral will be errected upon the site of the desctruction to prevent evil from manifesting itself. Centuries later, Lisa (Barbara Cupisti), working as a restoration artist in the church, unwittingly sets off a mechanism that seals the building shut, trapping several people inside it. As evil manifests itself and a mysterious demonic force is unleashed, the prisoners battle for survival.
With The Church (La Chiesa), former Dario Argento acolyte Michele Soavi introduced audiences to his unusual vision of gothic supernatural horror - a vision that he would further refine with his subsequent forays into the genre, The Sect and Dellamorte Dellamore. Having previously helmed the giallo Deliria (a.k.a. Aquarius, Stagefright) for the infamous Aristide Massaccesi (Joe D'Amato), The Church was certainly something of a homecoming for Soavi - produced by Argento, on whose films Tenebre, Phenomena and Opera Soavi had served as first or second assistant director. Their partnership proved to be a somewhat volatile one, as is so often the case when two artists with very specific visions work together, and although Soavi is quick to point out that, without Argento, he would not be where he is today, he frequently describes his tenure as a director of the Argento stable as a constant battle to prevent his own ideas and style from being smothered by that of his mentor. Especially on The Church, Argento is said to have breathed down his neck the whole time, personally supervising the editing and imposing a number of personal mandates, including the insertion of his then-girlfriend Antonella Vitale into the cast.
Unsurprisingly, for this project, Soavi inherited a crew comprised mostly of people who were, at the time, Argento regulars, many of whom would continue to work with Soavi after his alliance with Argento ended. Working from a script co-written by Argento and frequent collaborator Franco Ferrini (but which also featured unacknowledged contributions from Lamberto Bava and Dardano Sacchetti, both of whom have worked with Argento on numerous occasions), principal players included Argento's preferred editor Franco Fraticelli, production designer Antonello Geleng and special effects man Sergio Stivaletti. The score, too, bears the hallmark of an Argento production, featuring contributions from both Goblin and Keith Emerson (in addition to Philip Glass). The cast also includes Argento's daughter Asia, in one of her earliest on-screen roles. With so many members of the Argento camp taking on important roles in this movie, it comes as something of a surprise that Soavi was able to make his voice heard at all. Indeed, he was in fact not the original intended director. The project was begun as the second sequel to the successful but schlocky Demons, helmed by fellow Argento protégé Lamberto Bava, but Bava's contributions were tossed out when Argento was unsatisfied with the quality of his screenplay, and links to the Demons franchise were all but abandoned. Soavi was bought on board, and he proceeded to rework the script, filling it with his own brand of gothic terror.
The Church's most obvious flaw is its patchwork script. Quite obviously the result of the efforts of numerous different writers, the film begins clumsily with a prologue set in the Middle Ages, showing the massacre of an entire community by a group of religious zealots on horseback, before awkwardly transitioning to the present day in an unnamed European city. Before we even get a chance to find our feet, we are introduced to numerous characters with their own agendas, all of whom vie for the position of protagonist. Is the heart of the story the burgeoning romance between librarian Evan and restoration artist Lisa? Is it the wayward Lotte (Asia Argento), who likes to escape from her domineering parents to go partying in the big city, and who bears more than a slight resemblance to one of the innocents slaughtered in the prologue? The young punk couple who, for some reason, are hanging out at the church? Or perhaps it could be stolid Father Gus (Hugh Quarshie, whose face should be familiar to viewers of Holby City!), who seems to be slightly more aware of the aura of evil emanating from the building than his fellow clergymen? These are just some of the characters introduced to us, and not one of them seems to decisively occupy the role of protagonist. It is for this very reason that it becomes difficult to care for any of the characters, since none of them are on screen for long enough to develop any sort of rapport with them. The closest possible contender is Lisa, played by the quite fetching Barbara Cupisti (who had a bit part in Argento's Opera and was Soavi's girlfriend at the time). Although none of the actors are particularly bad per se, she is one of the strongest, which, coupled with her angelic appearance, makes her quite attractive as a potential protagonist. Feodor Chaliapan, essentially playing the same role that he did in The Name of the Rose, also has a strong screen presence and adds an air of class to the proceedings.
The real star, however, and the film's biggest saving grace, is Soavi's directorial skill. Although obviously inspired by his boss, Argento, he has quite clearly forged his own style, which was well-established from as early as this, his second feature. He frames his shots well, making superb use of the Budapest cathedral that is the film's central location and was reportedly the only religious establishment in Europe that would agree to the film being shot in. He is also no stranger to religious imagery, and at times could be accused of being somewhat heavy-handed - for example, the prologue features shots from the Teutonic knights' point of view, picturing their sight through their crucifix-shaped visors, which both represents their narrow-mindedness (by the limited field of view that the visors afford) and the destructive effect of organized religion (the fact that images of blood-letting and destruction take place within the shape of the Christian religious symbol). By and large, though, his use of this imagery is effective, and lends an air of class to a movie that could otherwise have been overly camp. Soavi also lends his visual eye to a demonic rape sequence late in the movie which, despite being cribbed wholesale from the memorable dream sequence in Roman Polanski's wonderful Rosemary's Baby, is highly effective. Soavi's talents as a director are such that he is able to make the film enjoyable purely by virtue of its look and atmosphere, managing to transcend its rather unimpressive origins as an instalment of the Demons saga.
Presented anamorphically in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio, The Church looks pretty good here, if a little soft. The colours are always vibrant, barring the medieval prologue - which is intentionally sepia-tinted - and the print is in very good shape throughout.
Audio quality, too, is solid, if rather unexceptional. As is so often the way with Anchor Bay releases, the original stereo soundtrack (presented here with surround encoding) is augmented by a rather pointless Dolby Digital 5.1 EX remix, which does little to provide a more enveloping experience, instead simply modifying the levels of the music, dialogue and sound effects. Sadly, Anchor Bay have neglected to provide the Italian dub, which always makes for a nice point of comparison with films like these. Luckily the English dub is reasonably good, with a minimal number of inappropriate voices. The dialogue, written by the late Nick Alexander, who served as dubbing director on a vast number of Italian horror movies and gialli, is also quite good if a little pompous (although this could be reflective of the original Italian script).
As usual for Anchor Bay, there are no subtitles of any kind. It seems almost redundant to say this, but this state of affairs is simply inexcusable.
Released as part of Anchor Bay's "Dario Argento Collection" label, extras are somewhat disappointing, limited to an effective but spoiler-ridden trailer, and a detailed Michele Soavi biography, which also includes his (all too brief) filmography. Originally, there was some speculation that the DVD would include a feature length commentary with Soavi, but this clearly didn't pan out.
The Church represents an uneasy marriage between the styles of Dario Argento and Michele Soavi. Although suffering from a poorly-constructed screenplay, Soavi's excellent visual sense shines through in what proves to be an atmospheric and largely enjoyable piece of gothic terror.
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