Seeing is (Dis-)Believing: Michele Soavi’s The Church, The Sect, and Cemetery Man

Soavi pushes his material as far as possible into absurdism and the surreal.

The Church

After making his inordinately stylish and often hilarious slasher film Stagefright, Dario Argento protégé Michele Soavi teamed up with the maestro for 1987’s The Church, a hallucinatory gothic concoction that was originally intended as the third entry in the Demons series before Lamberto Bava passed the directorial torch to Soavi. Although vastly different in tone and atmosphere than the Bava films, The Church still bears distinct traces of their core idea: Ravening demons are inadvertently let loose to run gruesomely amok within a confined space, in this instance a gothic cathedral located somewhere in Germany.

Where the Demons films take visual media as their primary mode of representation, Soavi and co-writers Argento and Franco Ferrini imbue The Church with a literary bent, which is apt for a story that centers around the interpretation of medieval texts. What’s more, the film overtly references works as disparate as M.R. James’s ghost story “The Treasure of Abbot Thomas,” about an antiquarian who runs into a spot of bother during his search for a stone with seven eyes, and the alchemically inflected writings of Fulcanelli, a French writer from the 1920s who posited the notion that you could “read” a cathedral like a sacred text.

Beginning with the memorable opening sequence—a sanguinary Conan the Barbarian riff of sorts, set to the coruscating rhythms of Philip Glass’s “Floe,” that depicts a medieval village allegedly infected by demonic contagion being put to the slaughter by a band of Teutonic knights—Soavi’s camera is remarkably mobile, seeming to glide effortlessly through The Church’s ghastlier events. The Demons films go right for the jugular, gleefully focusing on loads of gloopy special effects, but Soavi gives the proceedings a more oneiric feel, even when faces are being peeled off or severed heads are being used for bell clappers.

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The prologue establishes the recurring leitmotif of the cross, first glimpsed on a young girl’s sole as a supposed proof of evil influence, then used to seal and sanctify the villagers’ mass grave, and finally appearing on the floor of the cathedral’s subterranean vault. The cross designates the imposition of Christianity on paganism, whether by conversion or, as seen here, by ruthless suppression. The stone with seven eyes that ornaments the cross refers to the Book of Revelation, where it symbolizes the divine Lamb of God.

Once a blood sacrifice reopens the gates of hell, the expanding cult of the demonically infected within the sealed-off cathedral seek to reverse this history of Christian triumphalism. Their actions lead to a sacrifice of another sort: sexual congress with a satanic goat god, a la Rosemary’s Baby. Soavi’s film climaxes (pardon the pun) with both a downward and an upward thrust. As the cathedral begins to collapse around the infected, a column of writhing bodies breaks through from the vaults below into the cathedral’s nave. You’d be hard pressed to find a better visual representation of the return of the repressed/oppressed.

The ending of The Church turns the audience’s expectations on their head. Over the course of the film, we’ve been primed to see Father Gus (Hugh Quarshie) as our hero, a valiant Black protagonist along the lines of Duane Jones’s Ben in George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. But that notion goes out the window when Father Gus is taken out by falling masonry just like everyone else—everyone, that is, except Lotte (Asia Argento). Lotte is a bit of an ambivalent character, seemingly innocent, yet strangely knowing. She also seems unbound by time: She appears in the medieval prologue, turns up later in a manuscript illustration of the massacre, and, in the film’s ambiguous final shot, gazes smilingly into the abyss.

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Two years later, Soavi returned with The Sect, a shaggier tale that perhaps runs a bit too long but still packs its fair share of potent, not to mention dreamily poetic, imagery. This time Soavi doubles down on the references to Rosemary’s Baby since the story concerns a plot by the titular coven of devil worshippers to bring about the birth of the Antichrist with the unwitting assistance of German schoolmarm Miriam Kreisl (Kelly Curtis, Jamie Lee’s younger sister). The screenplay also manages to work in a few allusions to Lovecraftian deities for good measure.

The Sect
A scene from Michele Soavi’s The Sect.

Before we make our way to Germany, however, the film opens with a prologue set in “Southern California 1970.” A distinctly Mansonoid drifter called Damon (Tomas Arana) ominously intones some lines from the Rolling Stones’s “Sympathy for the Devil” before he and his biker cronies ritually slaughter a band of free-spirited, guitar-strumming hippies and their children. The Sect then shifts to present-day Frankfurt with an establishing shot of a statue that almost subliminally introduces one of the film’s abiding leitmotifs: the rabbit.

Not only does Miriam keep a pet rabbit, but almost every inch of her home is decorated with rabbit-related curios and tchotchkes. In myth and folklore, the rabbit is often associated with fertility and the moon, both of which are central to The Sect’s plotline. Miriam’s last name means “circular” in German, and the film duly contains multiple instances of round objects, most significantly the spiral-decorated cover of the well in Miriam’s basement.

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Animals on the whole feature prominently in The Sect: In a memorable scene that plays like a pagan ritual out of Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man, Miriam’s students don animal masks and imitate animal sounds. And one of the students’ mothers turns out to be an expert on scarab beetles of the sort once held sacred by the Ancient Egyptians, one of which makes its way up Miriam’s nostril in a bizarre parody of conception. Talk about your “pregnancy nose.”

The perpetrator of this seminal travesty is Moebius Kelly (Herbert Lom), an old man whom Miriam first encounters in the opposite of the traditional “meet cute” when she almost runs him over with her car. Instead of taking him to a hospital, he persuades her to bring him home with her. After some warm tea and polite chatter about how rock stars like the members of the Rolling Stones are “like gods,” they proceed to bed down in separate rooms.

This rather improbable concatenation of events not only allows Kelly access to Miriam’s nose, it also gives Soavi the opportunity to indulge in a delirious dream sequence. The oneiric set piece involves Miriam’s pet rabbit, a sacrificial figure bound to a massive tree decorated all over with moon-shaped baubles, and the sight of peignoir-clad Miriam growing ridiculously long legs. This last bit of imagery likely constitutes a nod to Alice in Wonderland, since after all white rabbits and sudden changes in human size also turn up in Lewis Carroll’s surreal children’s tale.

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The Sect’s ending remains its biggest misstep. The Church concludes on a disturbing note of existential ambiguity, while The Sect winds up sounding a triumphant trumpet, airily asserting the transcendence of mother-love over the machinations of a mere fiendish plot, not to mention the presumably diabolical motivations of an ascendant Antichrist. Still, the weirdness is memorably rampant, accomplished with Soavi’s trademark sinewy camerawork and bolstered by a strange yet lyrical score from Pino Donaggio, to gratify seasoned fans of Italian horror.

In 1994, Soavi unleashed his decadent and deranged magnum opus, known abroad as Cemetery Man, though its Italian-language title, Dellamorte Dellamore, better captures its deliriously sensuous dance of love and death. Like Jean Rollin’s The Iron Rose, the film takes place almost entirely within the confines of a cemetery. But where Rollin preferred to film in real graveyards, Soavi’s Buffalora Cemetery is an atmospheric triumph of production design from Massimo Antonio Geleng—except for the grotesquely ornate ossuary, which is reportedly real enough, not to mention eerily reminiscent of the one in Jan vankmajer’s short film “The Ossuary.”

Cemetery Man
A scene from Michele Soavi’s Cemetery Man.

The gate over the cemetery’s entrance bears the portentous Latin inscription RESURRECTURIS (“For those who will rise again”), and that’s precisely what happens with some regularity: By the seventh day, some of the recently departed come back, hungry for human flesh, only to be summarily dispatched by caretaker Francesco Dellamorte (Rupert Everett). But the film’s cheeky tone is closer to Dan O’Bannon’s Return of the Living Dead than a Lucio Fulci shocker. And you’d be wrong to peg this as just another zombie movie.

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Soavi is after something richer and stranger in Cemetery Man. Not only does the film set out to explore the surrealist notion of mad love that flies in the face of social relations and the certainty of death, exemplified by Francesco’s encounters with a mysterious woman (Anna Falchi), billed only as She in the credits, but it also entertains more outré ideas about the ineluctable interpenetration of sex and death. To this end, Francesco and the woman first make love atop her husband’s grave, then later on a stone slab in the ossuary.

Sex and death intermingle further in the perverse relationship between Francesco’s mentally impaired assistant, Gnaghi (Franois Hadji-Lazaro), and the zombified severed head of the mayor’s daughter, Valentina (Fabiana Formica). Their grotesque arrangement—he keeps her head inside a blown-out TV set in his rundown love shack—is a demented parody of domestic bliss. So, too, is their sitcom-inflected style of communication: She endlessly inveigles and berates him, while he can only respond with the lone syllable “Gna” as an all-purpose statement.

After his borderline necrophiliac trysts with She end badly for her sake, Francesco’s relations with his fellow man grow increasingly antisocial before breaking down entirely. The final act of Cemetery Man brazenly ups the surrealist ante by steadily blurring the lines between fantasy and reality, leading Francesco into even more unhinged violence and apparent insanity. It doesn’t help that more incarnations of the mysterious woman keep turning up (all played by Falchi), only for things to go horribly awry each time. At one point, Death itself (voiced by Derek Jacobi) advises Francesco to shift focus, resulting in a particularly graphic killing spree.

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Soavi clearly set out to push the material, adapted by Gianni Romoli from Tiziano Sclavi’s novel, as far as possible into absurdism and the surreal. Fittingly, Cemetery Man ends with one of the most unanticipated WTF moments in film history, an existential, if not downright metaphysical, inversion of everything we’ve been led to believe thus far. Cemetery Man crowns an incredible run of four indelible horror masterworks from Soavi. So it seems doubly unfortunate that a tag team of economical and film industrial pressures meant that he would have to move on from making these kinds of films. But what a gloriously delirious legacy he leaves behind.

The Church, The Sect, and Cemetery Man are now available from Severin Films.

Budd Wilkins

Budd Wilkins's writing has appeared in Film Journal International and Video Watchdog. He is a member of the Online Film Critics Society.

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