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A film-only review. A US DVD can be imported for less than £10.
This is one of the last films produced as part of the great wave of Italian horror that began in 1960. The director, Michele Soavi, was one of two young directors who were able to get interesting and popular horror films made in the late 80s (the other was Lamberto Bava, son of Mario Bava). Dario Argento, the pre-eminent 70s and early 80s Italian horror director, had produced a film called Demons, directed by Lamberto Bava, in 1985. It was good schlocky fun, an Evil Dead rip-off set in a cinema. Soavi had a small acting role in it.
The Church (1989) began life as Demons 3 (and was released under that title in a few places). However, Argento felt that the script worked better as a standalone movie (or perhaps he was hoping to kick off another franchise).
In a prologue, we see a village full of medieval hippy types - who might be satanists - being massacred by scary Teutonic Knights. They're then buried in a pit, over which a church is built in what becomes Hamburg. Centuries later, a new librarian starts work at the church. He tries to romance a lady restoring a fresco, and makes friends with the teenaged daughter of the sacristan. But then he accidentally opens the pit under the church, and all hell breaks loose. After some initial demonic possessions, the church seals itself shut, trapping various tourists and priests inside with the unleashed demons.
It's a pretty standard horror plot. The biggest surprise is that the medieval victims turn out to have been demonic after all - usually a horror film takes the side of the victims of religious repression, and we certainly seem to be encouraged to sympathise with the villagers while the massacre is happening. Their pit under the church is full of demons, anyway. (Although to be honest, the film is confusing and illogical, and can't seem to make up its mind about the source of the evil.) Characters trapped in a large building being picked off by demons is the same basic story as in, well, Demons, and I'm not sure why this was deemed inadequate as a sequel. Demons was also set in Germany.
The Church is frequently criticised for being illogical, and the plot doesn't make a great deal of sense. It's never made completely clear to what extent the demons are real, physical creatures rather than just mental forces which make people hallucinate and do horrible things to themselves and one another. Nor is it clear whether the demonic taint is spread by touch, as implied sometimes, or whether it just randomly affects people, as implied at other times. It's like there are a couple of missing exposition scenes. I'm not sure how much this matters, though.
This is an entertaining horror, especially for the late 80s. It's well directed - Soavi always has a good eye for an interesting looking shot composition. The cathedral itself is an impressive set, and the dank, dripping tunnels underneath, although unlikely, are a classic horror location. It manages to be atmospheric, and though there are some 80s hairstyles, they aren't too obtrusive. The music is provided by the potent combination of Keith Emerson, Philip Glass and Goblin (albeit the watered down post-Simonetti Goblin) and is perhaps the last great trad spaghetti-horror soundtrack.
It's never really scary, unfortunately, and doesn't generate any real suspense. A few spooky noises in the church aren't enough to build the mood, and it doesn't properly kick off until the blood starts flowing. The pacing is a bit off - it sets everything up painstakingly for the first half before giving us the good stuff in the second half. The set-up could be dealt with more quickly, and a bit too much time is spent following characters who aren't very interesting to begin with.
The character development turns out to be a bit of a waste of time anyway, as the film never quite decides who its protagonist is. It seems to flit between the librarian, Evan; his girlfriend Lisa; the young girl, Lotte; and a young priest, Father Gus. All are broadly drawn stock types with pretty much no character quirks to mark them out (except for Father Gus's never-mentioned-again interest in archery). It's amusing the way the film fills the church with yet more stock characters just in time for them all to get locked in. The vain model and the mischievous schoolkids are as expected, and the grumpy old man is hilarious. But the young biker couple seem massively out of place - horror movie staples they may be, but they don't seem like the kind of people to be visiting a cathedral.
The worst part of the film by far is the medieval prologue. The knights are straight out of Python (one character even looks a bit like Terry Gilliam) and the scene has no visceral impact at all. After this, though, there are some decent gore effects, used sparingly enough to not overwhelm the film. The bad taste highlight is probably the best devil-humping-a-human-woman scene I've ever witnessed, and the moment with the underground train is absolutely superb, if slightly crazy in terms of plot logic. The weakest special effect is the hideous reflection someone sees in a mirror, a stock scene straight out of a million other films, which feels shoehorned into this one.
The cast are a bit generic. It includes several performers from other Soavi films, including the fabulous Giovanni Lombardo Radice, rather squandered in a dull secondary priest role. Barbara Cupisti as Lisa manages to look unbelievably 80s, with a face that looks like Isabella Rossellini crossed with Kristen Scott-Thomas, with a hint of Lumley around the mouth. The most interesting performer is probably Asia Argento, then about 15, as Lotte. I'm not a huge fan of Argento's adult horror roles, but here she displays a natural talent and nascent star quality that puts most of the cast to shame.
The Church is a perfectly entertaining horror movie. There are no real surprises, but it goes about its business in a sprightly enough fashion to never get dull. It has a few perverse striking and images, and is directed well enough to lift it above the norm.