La Chiesa (The Church)
directed by Michele Soavi
written by Dario Argento, etc.
starring Asia Argento, Tomas Arana, Barbara Cupisti, Hugh Quarshie, Feodor Chaliapin Jr., Antonella Vitale, Roberto Corbiletto
The Knights Templar seem like a rowdy bunch of chaps. As this film opens we meet them as they aggressively make their way through a forest. They are being led to a young girl who has been proclaimed to be a daughter of Satan. She even has the cross carved in her heel to prove it. A young soldier (in God’s army no less) reaches out to caress her face and promptly squeezes out her eyeballs killing her instantly. Then after a brief period of reflection these great men decide that the entire village must pay and they proceed to slaughter every man, woman and child. These scenes are replete with life and energy and it’s rather intoxicating to watch the bodies pile up on top of one another in a massive pit. The priest or at least the old wise man with the spooky accent and the shuffling walk proclaims that the only way to protect the land from evil is to trap the souls beneath a massive church. Fast forward to present times. Indeed, a massive cathedral has been built and the parishioners all feel saved and safe within the confines of its walls. Only, there is something to yet be discovered that will alter everything and lead to a rather silly movie that has no genuine plot line worth following.
The two main protagonists in this film are named Evan (Arana) and Lisa (Cupisti). He is the new librarian and she paints grotesque frescos seeming because it’s a tremendous joy to watch sinners being eaten alive by demons when you are basking in the Lord’s eternal glow. Naturally they hook up and he finds a thread that leads him directly into Satan’s den. He is transformed into a could-be rapist who even has eyes for the lovely and quite young Lotte (Argento) who lives at the church with her Father Herman, the Sacristan (Corbiletto) and her mother (Alina De Simone). He’s just attempted to force himself on Lisa and he sees Lotte’s legs under the top of her desk. We are led to believe that he intends to take her but all he can do is to poke at her with a stick until she runs away. Still, he’s completely possessed by whatever it was escaped when he was snooping around in the basement pulling up a secret seal and unleashing untoward horrors on an unsuspecting world.
The church becomes quite active on a typical summery afternoon. There is a bridal party taking pictures, a group of children on a tour, and a couple of motorcycle enthusiasts who seem to be there for no particular reason whatsoever. There are also monks and Priests and an old tottering Bishop who does wonky research when he’s not scaring off Lotte when she hides out in the library. So, the course is set as soon as the mammoth doors to the church suddenly come closed and it becomes apparent that there are no other exists leading out of the church. Everyone is trapped including the bride (Vitale) whose train is literally trapped in the doors. Meanwhile things begin to get progressively weirder and there are a whole lot of collages with creepy demons and creaking noises that signify that something evil is afoot. The best scene is of a young woman who takes off all her clothes and begins fornicating with a demon. It’s actually not the only such scene as near the end Lisa is mounted by Evan who has taken the form of one of Satan’s hordes.
Much of the film is spent building up the suspense of what exactly is happening inside the sanctuary where so many gather to assure themselves that they are of the elect and that there will be a special place in heaven from which they can cast their gaze downward to the ill-begotten being unceremoniously torn to shreds. The score which features Philip Glass, Keith Emerson, and Goblin snakes through the narrative and adds to the creeping suspicion that there is something mightily untoward underfoot. Indeed, the entire structure seems to be writhing, grinding in a horrible copulation that threatens everyone trapped inside.
Lotte is the key player in all of this chaos. She is something of a wild child who sneaks out to dance, smoke and drink with her friends. She seems to know something instinctively about the truth behind the architectural design of the church. She is the one who cannot be cowed by the fear-mongering that informs so much of what the church’s teachings are bent on conveying. She is youth, marvelous and unencumbered by rules and regulations that would deign to demonize her pleasures. She doesn’t seem to be a firm believer in the sermons she encounters on those obligatory days when she is forced to attend mass. The bishop wants to inject even more terror into the hearts of the parishioners but its clear that Lotte is unaffected by all this hoopla. She merely wants to dress smart, smoke the occasional fag, and amuse herself as best she can for as long as she can.
It is an ingenious idea that such a sanctified place can be built upon the bones of so many innocents slaughtered in the name of the same God to whom the church pays its allegiance. It’s a scintillating conceit and one that works well to undermine the church’s long standing tyranny over matters of the soul. In this film it is not clear whether it is the souls of the damned that have come back to life in order to seek revenge or if it is just a matter of so much negative energy gathered in one place finally being released and wreaking havoc due simply to its potency. It’s more likely that the souls have been disturbed although they do manage to possess certain people and turn them into demons whose forms can only be seen at certain moments. There is also something about certain individuals suffering wounds to the face and turning into something foul and unclean.
Altogether there is some pretty heinous violence in this film especially at the beginning where the Knight’s Templar run amok and start whacking people at will. These scenes are set apart from the rest of the film due to the time differentiation as well as the core brutality of the violence. The act of slaughtering babes and dumping their bodies into a giant pit manages to resonate throughout the entire film. Lotte is also seen as an innocent who must use her intelligence and secret knowledge to escape before it is too late. Overall, this film manages to get under the skin for a short while but the effect is not particularly lasting. It’s a mildly amusing and entertaining form of fluff-horror that never seems to quite live up to the gaudy premise. It doesn’t fail necessarily but rather it sort of limps along relying on collages of images and sound to convey the horror of what is being done inside the church. Ultimately, it just doesn’t quite have enough energy to sustain itself throughout although the ending is quite satisfying on several levels. There is suffering here and nightmarish scenarios that spring to life in dull, washed out color. The beasts are cool and there is a certain sexiness here that comes through when the women are fornicating with demons. This alone makes the film worthwhile as does the style that it maintains throughout.