The Italian horror cinema scene has always been dominated by such names as Mario Bava, Dario Argento and Lucio Fulci. Their films became Italy’s contribution to horror cinema and one cannot find a fan of the genre who don’t hold these three gentlemen in high regard. Other names of the Italian horror scene were not as well-known beyond the most hardcore horror fans and some just don’t deserve to be in the same company as the previously mentioned trio. One filmmaker who should be part of their company is one Michele Soavi. He rose through the ranks as an actor at first before moving on to becoming assistant directors for mentors such as Joe D’Amato and Dario Argento. The latter would become a major influence in Soavi’s work and would help produce some of his films. One of those Argento would end up producing for Soavi is the 1989 supernatural horror film, The Church (known in Italy as La Chiesa).
The Church wasn’t one of Soavi’s best films, but it was still one of the better horror films to come out of Italy during the waning years of the 80’s when Italian horror began a slow decline. Starring a very young Asia Argento (hard to believe that a career which began with reports of nepotism would turn out to be a successful one in and out of Italy) and an Italian-American actor named Tomas Arana (people would know him best as the ambitious Quintus in Ridley Scott’s Gladiator), the film starts off with a cohort of Teutonic Knights who destroy and kill a town suspected of witchcraft. The bodies of all killed soon get dumped into a mass grave and sealed with a huge metal cross and prayers to keep the evil that was done from ever coming out.
The beginning does have a somewhat ambiguous tone to it as we the audience don’t know if the villagers were indeed evil. Soavi definitely leaves that up in the air until the final third of the film kicks in and most of the horror scenes appear to satisfy gore fans. The knights destroying the village was well-staged and executed with some cool kill-scenes and effects.
It’s the middle reel where the film slowed down to the point that could lose the more casual horror fan. We get the usual non-believer researcer (Arana) who stumbles upon the ancient cross sealing the mass grave beneath the church that had been built over it down the centuries. Even this researcher and another knows that they should leave it alone, but being the scientists one of them proceeds to unseal the find with the reasoning that pursuit of knowledge should triumph over supersitition. Thus, the church becomes the scene of demonic possessions of various individuals. First, the initial researcher who opens unseals the cross then the parents of Asia Argento’s character before moving on to churchgoers who become trapped in the church after some demonic force seals all exits.
The rest of the film once that church seals itself is one person either getting killed by those possessed by the demons escaping from the sealed grave or someone getting possessed. This third act actually has a touch of Fulci’s nightmarish-style and less of Argento’s more dream-like quality. There’s a beautiful scene of Tomas Aranas’ character made-up to be some verdigrised-bronze angel statue, wings and all, embracing a very naked young woman that looked straight out of a Luis Royo painting. Another scene where regular Soavi actor Barbara Cupisti was shown in sexual congress with a demonic being that should give more than a few people nightmares despite being framed and shot in a beautiful manner.
The final nightmare scene of beauty which pushes The Church over into Fulci territory is when a mass of naked, muddied bodies of all those possessed entwine and writhe to form the likeness of a demon’s head. This sequence alone was worth watching through the much slower middle section of this film and Soavi’s eye for staging and lighting the scene made it look like something out of the pages of Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy.
One could say that The Church just didn’t live up to the usual quality one expected out of a Michele Soavi film after a he made the excellent giallo-slasher film Stage Fright just two years prior. This second full-lenght feature by Soavi showed him still honing his talent as a filmmaker which would finally culminate five years later in one of the best Italian horror films and one of the best films in the zombie subgenre with his Dellamorte Dellamore. Plus, even when he’s not on top of his craft like with The Church it is still worth a watch and better than the stuff released by his contemporaries like Bruno Mattei.