The name Michele Soavi should ring a bell to even the most casual fans of Eurohorror. Though Soavi doesn't have quite as extensive a résumé as fellow Italian directors Mario Bava, Lucio Fulci, or mentor Dario Argento, his 1994 film Dellamorte Dellamore (perhaps better known to some as Cemetery Man) garnered international acclaim and brought Soavi to the forefront of international horror. Anchor Bay is now releasing the director's work to DVD, starting with his first two feature films, Stagefright and The Church.
Inspired in part by M.R. James' The Treasure of Abbot Thomas, The Church kicks off at some point in the distant past, as a group of knights slaughter an entire town believed to carry a demonic contagion. A church is constructed over the burial pit to keep the dark plague from further threatening the God-fearing. We're then transported to the present, where Evan (Tomas Arana), an enthusiastic new librarian, begins his considerable task of cataloguing the church's many works. A young woman restoring the church (Barbara Cupisti) stumbles upon a mysterious parchment, which has Evan visiting the bowels of the holy building and inadvertently unleashing the evil contained within. Evan seems to go stark raving mad, as do many of the people he encounters. After some assorted creepiness inside and outside of its walls, an ancient mechanism is triggered that locks Evan, Lisa, and a number of other employees and visitors inside the church. Though it's uncertain if the power trapped within its confines is madness or malevolence, there's little doubt the few will make it out alive...
The Church, from what I understand, started life as the third installment of the Demons series, and on the surface, the similarities are unmistakable. Like Demons and Demons II, The Church takes place in a confined, virtually inescapable space, where a diverse group of character is trapped with a violent, possessive demonic force. Soavi, an assistant director on the first film, reshaped and expanded the concept somewhat. Though the Demons elements are very much still present, they're relegated almost entirely to the second half of the film.
Though beautifully shot, the narrative of The Church is a muddled mess, which perhaps should not come as a surprise given the number of writers behind the film. Many of the primary characters -- or at least those characters that seem as if they are of some relative importance -- have a tendency to disappear for lengthy stretches of time, reappearing at random, sporadic intervals. The introduction of the demon fodder in the final 45 minutes is awkward, forced, and far too brief, a far cry from the way the patrons of the cinema in Demons were presented. The second half of the film seems to have almost been pieced together from an entirely different movie, as the characters who were so prominent in the first hour are essentially reduced to cameos, and their dangling plot threads go unresolved.
The Church is likely to inspire far more giggles than shivers. Gorefiends will be sorely disappointed by the lack of grue -- there's scarcely anything along those lines until the Demons half of the film, and even then, the body count is kept awfully low. The late Feodor Chaliapin Jr. appears to have been dubbed by Papa Smurf, and despite his ominous appearance, it's tough to keep a straight face. There are quite a few "what the hell?" moments, and certainly too many to fully list here. The total lack of chemistry between Tomas Arana and Barbara Cupisti makes it difficult to buy their characters' whirlwind romance, especially with Evan endlessly prattling on about the discovery of the parchment. The stunts and special effects are none too impressive, though this is a factor of the film's budget and not Soavi's talent behind the camera. Scenes involving demon humping, a sudden leap out a window, the appearance of police a matter of seconds after placing a phone call, a jackhammer inexplicably jutting up through a floor, and an inventive way of ringing a large bell will leave many viewers either laughing in their seats or scratching their heads in confusion.
Italian horror enthusiasts will almost certainly be interested in this DVD, though perhaps more for the talent involved than the film itself. The Church was produced and co-written by the legendary Dario Argento (and, in fact, the disc was released as part of the Anchor Bay's Argento collection), as well as featuring Argento's daughter Asia in a moderately prominent role. Giovanni Lombardo Radice appeared in a number of other Soavi films, as well as the notorious Cannibal Apocalypse, and Feodor Chaliapin Jr.'s lengthy filmography includes Argento's Inferno. Antonella Vitale and Barbara Cupisti both appeared in Opera, with Cupisti also turning up in Stagefright and Dellamorte Dellamore . Hugh Quarshie and Tomas Arana have enjoyed prominent roles in such mainstream fare as Pearl Harbor, Gladiator, L.A. Confidential, The Bodyguard, and Star Wars: Episode I.
Though The Church is not the most recommended foundation for a Eurohorror collection, Anchor Bay's attractively priced unrated DVD release looks and sounds very nice, in keeping with the quality of their prodigious output.
Video: The 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen presentation, as one would expect from an Anchor Bay release, teeters on
perfection. The source material is in immaculate condition, without the slightest scratch or tiniest fleck lurching onto a
single frame. Colors appear to be a largely accurately reproduction, and crispness and clarity are both fairly strong
throughout. Though there is a thin veil of grain apparent for much of the film, heavier in parts of the prologue and certain
dimly lit scenes, it's almost certainly indicative of how The Church appeared during its theatrical run over a decade
ago. Typically excellent work.
Audio: Anchor Bay has provided The Church with a newly remixed English Dolby Digital Surround EX soundtrack,
though it doesn't cry out for that sort of treatment in quite the same way as, say, Suspiria. The keyboard-driven
musical contributions from Goblin (credited here as 'The Goblins') and Keith Emerson (and to continue with the overuse of
parenthetical notes, yes, that Keith Emerson) aren't as memorable as their previous collaborations with Argento, but
their strength and vibrancy belies the age of the film. The dialogue sounds fine, though the quality of the looping (again,
nothing that can be attributed to Anchor Bay) leaves a bit to be desired. The use of surrounds is effective and steers clear
of feeling forced or unnatural, though they don't roar to life nearly as much as one would expect from a remix of this type.
My only real quibble would be that the climax as of the film, and I'll attempt to spoil as little as possible, involves some
pretty massive devastation, though the low frequencies that should accompany that sort of activity are noticeably absent.
There are no subtitles of any sort, nor is any mention of Closed Captioning made on the packaging, though a standard 2.0
stereo surround track has been included as well.
Supplements: The Church includes an anamorphic widescreen trailer strangely lacking any dialogue, along with a
Michele Soavi biography.
Conclusion: The Church is not a recommended starting point for budding Eurohorror enthusiasts, though
established completists and Michele Soavi's fanbase will find this disc to be an essential purchase. Italian horror buffs
won't have to dip too deeply into cash set aside for the collection plate, considering that this DVD can be purchased
online for as sinfully low as $13.20 shipped. My apologies for the excruciatingly bad religion puns.