It would, I think, be impossible to make the case that Michele Soavi’sThe Church (1989) is a good movie. An interesting one — occasionally even fascinating — yes. A sometimes creepy one, yes. A beautifully photographed one with some amazing traveling shots, oh my, yes. An unintentionally amusing one, yes. But actually good, probably not. In the first place, it’s not just that it’s on the incoherent side — name me anything that involves Soavi’s mentor, Dario Argento, that isn’t largely incoherent. (No, don’t try it, you might hurt yourself.) It’s more that The Church has a premise that makes no sense. The film opens with a pretty clunky period episode in which a bunch of quasi-Templar Knights kill off an entire village of supposed pagans at the behest of their religious-fanatic masters. These folks are then dumped into a mass grave. which becomes the foundation for the church of the title. OK, fine, but this prologue presents the pagans as the innocent victims, so why does the bulk of the film concern them being awakened and coming forth to engage in all kinds of Satanic demon stuff? Beats me. And it apparently beat the seven guys who had hands in writing the movie. Since it’s Italian horror, I guess it only matters that they do. That the film was originally supposed to be Demons 3 probably explains much — and it’s at least better than those Demons movies.
The bulk of the film details what happens when a money-hungry librarian (Tomas Arana) gets a bee in his bonnet that there’s some kind of treasure hidden in the church. Well, wouldn’t you know it? Instead of a treasure he finds the old mass grave — and in a really impressive sequence, he manages to get scratched by a demon. Well, seems even the tiniest scratch is the fast track to possession, so soon he’s having a fit in a phone booth while trying to call his sort-of girlfriend (Barbara Cupisti). The moans he comes up with disturb her no end — as well they might. Afterward, for apparently no reason, he pulls his heart out of his chest and looks at it. This seems to damage him not at all, since he quickly shows up — now sporting what looks like a demented version of the donkey head from a peculiar production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream— at the girlfriend’s house for a spot of mayhem that never comes off, since she jumps out (or rather through) the window and is rescued by the cops.
This is pretty much what the whole film is like, but the ante is upped once everyone gets trapped in the church for the big climax. The antics here include impalement with a jackhammer, impalement with a wrought-iron fence, inconclusive (but apparently murderous) boy-on-boy action, a bell being rung with a severed head, a bit of “comic relief” in which someone gets splattered by an oncoming subway (it runs under the church) and demonic conjugal hijinks. (A more obvious Rosemary’s Baby “borrowing” could scarcely be conceived — if you’ll pardon the term.) It turns out that nothing less than the Fate of the World is in the balance here. Yeah, it’s pretty silly … and yet the film induces a lingering unease that’s hard to shake. I lay this at the film’s fairly nasty tone and some of the more disturbing images — like the writhing mountain of muddy naked bodies that rises up through the floor. Put it this way — I wouldn’t want to see it too often. That may or may not be a recommendation.
The Thursday Horror Picture Show will screen The Church Thursday, Jan. 7, at 8 p.m. in Theater Six at The Carolina Asheville, hosted by Xpress movie critics Ken Hanke and Scott Douglas.