Scorpion Releasing: The Church (1989) - Reviewed

Lamberto Bava’s 1985 Italian horror film Demons, concerning a movie theater full of patrons who are infected with a virus that transforms them into bloodthirsty Hellspawns, became an instant hit and generated a sequel the following year.  Produced and co-written by Dario Argento and former Lucio Fulci screenwriter Dardano Sacchetti, the film featured part-time actor and assistant director Michele Soavi on the cast, notably making an appearance in the first film as a masked villain.  

Years later, what was intended to be the third entry in the Demons film series fell into Soavi’s lap and an unprecedented move, Soavi pulled a Halloween III: Season of the Witch by making the third film a standalone piece with zero relation to the films before it.  Dubbing the first two Demons films ‘pizza schlock’, Soavi wrote out any and all references to the previous films.  Springboarding from M.R. James’ short story The Treasure of Abbot Thomas, Soavi’s film The Church which presumably would have been the site for a third demonic viral outbreak instead envisions a gothic horror fable about a medieval German cathedral with a centuries-old demonic secret buried underneath it. 
After young librarian Evan (Tomas Arana) joins the church to work with college art student Lisa (Barbara Cupisti) to restore the cathedral’s paintings, he inadvertently stumbles upon the long-buried gateway to the unholy netherworld.  On the cusp of a brief visit by a fashion crew working a photoshoot, the church doors seal themselves shut, locking everyone inside as all manner of pandemonium slowly begins to break loose.

Far more nuanced and mannered than the previous Demons films with an emphasis on more methodical pacing and painterly camerawork, The Church jettisons the cheap thrills in favor of a more serious tone and approach to storytelling.  Featuring a teenage Asia Argento in addition to Feodor Chaliapin and Hugh Quarshie, The Church shares the ensemble cast roots of the Demons films with no single character or actor taking center stage yet with a completely different execution. 
Boasting ornate cinematography of the cathedral by Renato Tafuri and sporting a score of new as well as preexisting material by Keith Emerson, Philip Glass, Goblin and Fabio Pignatelli, the film is a bit of a smorgasbord of originality and derivation.  Scenes of a mud-covered unholy altar crawling with writhing naked bodies rising from the ground are striking in their creativity while other scenes such as a Satanic dragon-goat creature raping a hypnotized female victim steal so blatantly from Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby they border on plagiarism.  It wouldn’t be so aggravating if it didn’t use musical cues and shot arrangements that are virtually identical to the 1968 genre classic.  Soavi even went so far as to utilize the same chanting sounds heard on the soundtrack to Polanski’s film without changing a note. 

Nods such as a neon blue cross forming the portal into the underworld feel like a nod to Michael Mann’s The Keep which I’ll happily argue is the superior film here.  The aforementioned Philip Glass cues themselves, culled from his album Glassworks, while ever brilliant couldn’t help but take me out of the The Church and drop me right into Godfrey Reggio’s Koyaanisqatsi.  Soavi clearly displays an affinity for the classy potentiality of the genre and yet wears his influences so proudly on his sleeve they tend to work against the film. 

In the end The Church emerges as a beautifully stylized picture that is remarkable for its visual splendor and serious-minded tone with one of the bleaker finales in any of the Demons films.  Equal parts baroque thanks to the church setting and steeped in apocalyptic religious imagery Bosch would be proud of, there’s plenty to recommend here yet there’s also enough overt nods to films which inspired it's creation to tamper with your investment in The Church. 
When it dives inward down the film’s increasingly dark subterranean tunnels of Hell, it works beautifully.  When it reaches outward to grab from preexisting properties we’re more than familiar with, it becomes frustrating and unintentionally deflates some of the artistic powers of the more creative sequences.  Imperfect and highly derivative but still a curious, wildly different direction for the loosely connected Demons film series to take.

- Andrew Kotwicki