In the field of classic Gothic cinema the Italians really take some beating when it comes to evoking visual beauty from perverse themes. In contrast to classic British Gothic, which blossomed from stagey Gainsborough drama and a subtle sense of sexuality, Italian Gothic — right from the get go, with the likes of Mario Bava’s Black Sunday (1960) — came brimming with a sense of baroque decadence. Nothing was off limits; from tales of incest, sadomasochism, transgressive sexual desire or stories of the perverse and arcane, Italian film celebrated all the wicked corners the Gothic imagination had to offer, adopting a “show, not tell” approach as they harvested talent from the deep pool of craftsmen available to them. Unfortunately, as with all good things, it couldn’t go on forever. The film industry saw a decline throughout the ‘70s and ‘80s, with television and home video gaining popularity within this period. The trend towards Hollywood blockbusters and multi-million dollar budgets also helped to force out the competition. As a result, by the end of the ‘80s the Italian horror industry was all but dead and buried.
Had director Michele Soavi been born just ten or twenty years earlier he may have been celebrated as one of the great masters. He would have certainly seen more opportunities come his way than he was given. Getting his start with the likes of Joe D’Amato, Soavi later became known as Dario Argento’s “protégé” — due to their many collaborations; including Argento serving as producer and co-writer for the director’s second and third solo features. This grounding helped him develop a unique style and instinct for making Gothic film which harked back to the classic days of the genre. Sadly, as his career was starting to take off the bottom fell out of the industry, leaving him with a short, but impressive, legacy in the field. His opus Dellamorte Dellamore (Cemetery Man, 1994)— an ode to the romance of Graveyard Poetry and Gothic perversity, wrapped up in sharp wit and impressive sex and violence — came off the back of two like-minded films, The Church (1989) and The Sect (1991), which while not perfect, show evidence of a bold director who was willing to push the genre to new heights in order to make a new potent form of Gothic for the modern age.
Soavi’s directorial debut Stage Fright (1987) set the bar for his visual flair, with the director mixing together elements of the ‘70s giallo and ‘80s slasher to create something totally his own. He would continue to innovate with The Church; originally envisioned as part of the “Demons” series started by Lamberto Bava (hence the film’s alternate title: Demons 3). The director was having none of it, and instead used the film to map out his own terrain, moving him nicely into the field of Gothic where he played satanic themes associated with the genre.
The Church (La chiesa, Cathedral of Demons, Demons 3) wears its Gothic roots on its sleeve right from the get go by introducing a prologue set in the 12th century, when a group of Teutonic knights massacre an entire community they believe to be witches. Although Gothic as we know it today didn’t begin until the 16th century, the style belongs to firmly in this earlier period. However, when it comes to horror cinema the potential of 12th century Gothic has rarely been used — with De Ossorio’s Blind Dead series and its Templar Knights being one exception to this rule — making Soavi’s film something of a rare breed.
The opening scenes are breathtaking in their composition. Knights storm into a village, looking for witches, where they find a girl with the sign of the cross on her foot (which apparently marks her as being in league with Satan). This discovery causes the knights to kill everyone in the community, before dumping them into a mass grave. The scene carries art and violence in equal quantities; the original girl has her skull crushed, people are beheaded, a woman is stripped naked and strung out on a cross, while the bodies are thrown into a pit, some of them still writhing in the throes of death, as earth is shoveled onto their bloody carcasses and they are left to choke on the dirt. The images are brutal, but also capture the macabre sense of beauty inherent in the Gothic genre.
Fast forward several centuries and we find that a cathedral in the middle of a modern metropolis has been built on top of the grave of witches. The director uses Gothic architecture to establish atmosphere, and is clever here, juxtaposing modern city life with the ominous sharp angles of the cathedral to mesh together past versus present. Hidden in the catacombs of the ancient structure are the arcane mysteries of the Catholic church, where centuries of secrets, lies and a violent history are about to be unlocked when archaeologist Evan (Tomas Arana) finds the key to open up the bowels of hell. He thinks he may have found the secret of the arc, ancient scrolls which can turn men into gods. What he discovers instead has the potential to destroy mankind. By bringing in the staple “sins of the fathers” line Soavi also infuses his tale with elements of demonic possession to conjure something straight out of the Matthew Lewis (The Monk) school of Gothic terror.
Just like the original Demons, the main bulk of the story involves a group of people trapped inside the building, as demons possess them one by one. Among the throng are Evan’s girlfriend Lisa (Barbara Cupisti, star of Stage Fright) who had been helping in restoration work on the building, church caretaker’s daughter Lottie (a very young Asia Argento) — the girl is also a reincarnation of one of the original witch village members — and Giovanni Lombardo Radice as a priest (another actor to return after starring in Soavi’s debut). With everyone literally out of their minds, and engrossed in a ritual to inseminate Lisa with Satan’s seed, it is down to Father Gus (Hugh Quarshie) to find the mechanism that will bring the entire structure crashing down on the forces of evil, before evil can infect the wider population.
Although the plot takes the slow burn route to get to its conclusion, Soavi delivers a number of gorgeous set pieces along the way. As well as loading up his statement by throwing crucifixes and religious iconography into an already heady brew of sex and violence — crosses as artistic statements turn up on the helmet of a Templar Knight (with one shot giving his point of view, framing the picture) and the scene where Evan unlocks the vault, which glows blue in the huge shape of a cross — Soavi also uses the imposing nature of the cathedral itself to present a baroque visual statement. Yet, nothing compares to the dramatic climactic scenes, where a hideous goat beast fornicates with his victim amidst a party of chanting minions. Set in the crypts of the cathedral, the entire scene is lit with hundreds of candles. You can literally smell the mold and cobwebs as the diabolical act takes place. In this, Soavi revels in Gothic perversity at its most decadent: Satan’s child conceived in the very building erected to keep him and his acolytes trapped in their own dominion.
The Sect (La setta, The Devil’s Daughter) uses some of the same ideas from its predecessor, but moves further down the Left Hand Path in its use of diabolical themes; with the director paying tribute to the pagan school of Gothic, via Arthur Machen’s The Great God Pan, and Lovecraftian mythos, by introducing fertility goddess Shub-Niggurath, The Black Goat of the Woods into a busy narrative. Matters start with a similar orgy of violence, when travelling hippies are slaughtered by a visitor to their camp who arrives looking like Jesus and spouting lyrics from The Rolling Stones Sympathy for the Devil. Viewers are given little time to ponder the horror of young men, women and children being senselessly massacred in a Manson family style ritual — a heart is burned on the bonfire as the perpetrators celebrate in the aftermath — before the narrative jumps forward twenty years into modern times. Giovanni Lombardo Radice gets a small, but significant role to play here, as a murderer who kills a young woman, in order to take her heart, before we are introduced to Moebius Kelly (Herbert Lom), a seemingly innocent old man with a mysterious package. Moebius is run over by school teacher Miriam (Kelly Curtis) as he departs from the bus he has been travelling on, and in order to sooth her guilt for the accident, she takes him home. Soavi then returns to Gothic mode, using Miriam as a typical maiden, trapped inside a house with many secrets. Unbeknownst to her the gateway to hell lies in her basement, in an old well. The old man knows this, it the reason he has orchestrated a way of being there in the first place. His mission: to inseminate the girl with the seed of Satan.
The story has echoes of Rosemary’s Baby, however Soavi expands the narrative into unique territory. He uses the core foundation of a Gothic maiden trapped alone in an isolated house, to play with lighting and shadow. The look and feel of these scenes is beautiful; especially the strange basement and its spiral ceiling design that works in symmetry with the circular well opening. However, he is not satisfied with leaving it there. Instead, the director continually breaks convention by allowing dreamscapes and nightmarish visions to interrupt the linear flow of the main story. In this he wanders firmly into fantasy territory, creating a sense of the otherworldly and profane.
The first real instance of fantasy indulgence comes in Miriam’s dream, where she starts out walking through a poppy filled meadow, picking flowers, as a child’s cry ruptures the serenity of the scene. After travelling through woods she encounters a tree lit up with the reflection of hundreds of wind chimes designed with occult symbols. There she finds a naked man tied to trunk. But on freeing him, and allowing him to climb on top of her, a large bird descends from the sky and pecks a bleeding hole in her neck. A later scene returns to the sacred tree, where the sect gather to summon Shub-Niggurath. Their bizarre ritual involves a young girl tied upside down, hooks are inserted into her face to remove it, producing a skin mask which is transferred to a dead man in order to bring him back to life.
While this might all seem dizzying, and to some extent it is, there is no denying Soavi was a director with vision. He packs the film with pagan symbols — for example rabbits or hares to signify fertility — strange amulets and sigil designs, masks, feathers, grotesque birds, and the element of water; used as a marker for the gateway to hell, as well as a birthing pool. There are so many artistic touches involved, it is impossible to take it all in on the first, second or even third watch. In addition to this he revels in the aspect of perversity by making the violence especially sadistic and brutal; adding in notes of incest, “you always wanted a son and a father Miriam, well now you can have them at the same time”— although he digresses from the usual insemination technique to instead have consummation through a bird attack or penetration from bugs invading the mouth and ears. Even after all this, he still finds time to bring in instances of zombies, possession, and typical Gothic garnish in a mortuary filled with ornate coffins.
Both of the films were produced, and co-written, by Soavi’s mentor, Dario Argento. Despite this, the director was very much his own man. As the industry was dying and genre stalwarts like Lucio Fulci, Umberto Lenzi, and even Argento himself, were struggling to keep things afloat, Soavi was like a breath of fresh air for the Italian horror film. It is a shame the state of the death of the industry all but stopped him in his tracks. However, that does not take away the fact he was able to create magnificent (although admittedly flawed) Gothic cinema, or that he far out classed his contemporaries when it came to artistic vision.
The Church and The Sect are out now, available on BD from Shameless here.