The Sect Review
The lives of a group of hippies in 1970s California are rocked by the arrival of a crazed Rolling Stones fanatic, Damon (Tomas Arana), who invades their camp and, with the help of his cult of sinister buddies, dispatches the piece-lovin' flower children. Cut to present-day Frankfurt, and an attractive young woman (aren't they all?) is offed by a madman, who scoops out her heart and takes it with him for a ride on the subway. Confronted by the resident security guards, he comits suicide. It seems that ritual murders and suicides are taking place throughout Germany, the work of a demonic cult. None of this seems relevant to Miriam Kreisl (Kelly Curtis), an pretty schoolteacher who lives alone with only her pet rabbit for company. After narrowly avoiding mowing down an old man (Herbert Lom) with her car, she takes him home, where he seemingly collapses and dies, but not before infecting her with a bizarre parasite and opening up an apparently bottomless pit in her basement. It turns out that the old man is the cult's leader, and that their plans involve impregnating her with the Antichrist. To reveal any more would spoil the movie, but suffice to say that the whole affair is filled with bizarre imagery, disturbing dream sequences, inventive murders and one very smart bunny!
Michele Soavi's second and last project for producer Dario Argento, The Sect (La Setta) looks and feels a great deal like Trauma, Argento's much-maligned foray into the perils of American filmmaking. This is not particular surprising given that it shares two significant players, namely composer Pino Donaggio, whose work for Argento has never been on the same level as his work for Brian de Palma, and cinematographer Raffaele Mertes, whose drab but atmospheric visuals are instantly recognizable. Certainly, after the phenomenal success of The Church's photography, which in many ways saved the film from its weak screenplay, The Sect's brown and rather unappealling look comes as something of a disappointment. This film's strengths lie elsewhere, its deeper substance contrasting with The Church's superficiality.
Things get off to a worryingly bad start, with a laughable prologue set in the 1970s Californian desert and featuring a group of hippies coming a-cropper when they encounter a deranged man with a beard (Tomas Arana hamming it up something rotten) with a propensity to quote the Rolling Stones. Written by Argento, an avid Stones fan (guitarist Bill Wyman provided music for Phenomena and Opera), Soavi and co-writer Gianni Romoli both claim that they let him write this ludicrous preamble in the hope that he would leave the rest of the script alone. Indeed, as soon as the prologue ends the quality of the writing and the film as a whole improve dramatically. The character of Miriam is appealling, not just because of the solid performance by Kelly Curtis (youngest daughter of Janet Leigh), but because the role is well-written, filled with oddities that serve to make her a very endearing lead. The film is paced slowly, with the events gradually unfolding and the tension slowly mounting. Along the way, Soavi adds interest in the form of nightmarish dream sequences that blur the line between fantasy and reality, and weird "bunnycam" point of view shots, all of which serve to establish a sensation of uneasiness and the feeling that we are in a world other than our own.
Like Soavi's final film to date, Dellamorte Dellamore, The Sect is an incredibly visceral experience and one that defies a literal explanation. Falling squarely between his second and fourth feature film outings (The Church and Dellamorte Dellamore respectively) both chronologically and in terms of overall quality, I would not consider it vital viewing, but it should prove to be an unnerving and sufficiently different experience for curiosity seekers. Soavi remains the most interesting of Italy's new generation of horror directors, and while not his best work, this is a solid effort.
The most elusive of Soavi's films, mainly due to the fact that it seems only to have been released on DVD in Italy, The Sect is given a rather foul transfer, which slightly crops the film from its original 1.66:1 aspect ratio to a more squat 1.78:1. Although anamorphic, the definition is poor, the black level and colour saturation are consistently weak, and the whole image has a very crusty, murky look to it, a bit like a poor quality LaserDisc. I could go on and on about the problems with this transfer all day, but it wouldn't be worth it. Suffice to say, it is relatively watchable, but not what the DVD format is capable of.
Slightly more impressive is the audio presentation. As is the case with all of Soavi's films, The Sect was shot "silent" in English and dubbed in post production. Cecchi Gori have provided audio options in both Italian and English, although the fact that no English subtitles are provided means that the two Italian tracks (Dolby and DTS 5.1) are going to be of little use to English speakers. The English Dolby Digital 2.0 track, which preserves the film's original theatrical mix, is a serviceable track that sounds relatively crisp without being outstanding. Italian subtitles are provided, but once again they will be of little use to most readers.
Bonus materials are fairly rudimentary, starting off with miniscule photos of the four main cast members (Curtis, Lom, Arana and Giordano). The film's principal credits are also (pointlessly) listed, along with a photo gallery featuring 16 images from both sides of the camera, and a bizarre scene outline along with the corresponding chapter stops. The film's theatrical trailer and a bonus trailer for The Sect round out this rather disappointing package.
With The Sect, Michele Soavi continues to cement his skills as a filmmaker and ends up delivering movie that works slightly more successfully than The Church without achieving the same level of visual quality (although I would not say that the difference is significant enough for The Sect to deserve a higher overall score). Although not up to his fourth (and to date final) movie, the spellbinding Dellamorte Dellamore, The Sect remains a solid effort and one that is well worth seeking out.
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