Wednesday, October 3, 2012

The Church (1989)

I have been a Cary Grant fan for a long, long time. Ever since I saw him in the phenomenal His Girl Friday, his wild charm and mischievous smile won me over. I'll watch just about anything with him in it. When I saw him in Kiss Them For Me, though, he was slightly upstaged in my eyes. Not by Jayne Mansfield, though she certainly has her share of positives. No, this would be the first time that I saw Suzy Parker. Her pale skin, light eyes, auburn hair, and chiseled features were alluring. I couldn't stop staring at her. Plus, she could hold her own against ladykiller Grant. But what fascinated me even more about her was that she was essentially an ice queen, inaccessible almost to the last. And as we all know, you always want what you cannot have. 

That film also introduced my friends and me to the concept of Stingers. Primarily regarded as an aperitif due to its mixture of brandy and crème de menthe, it's not an unpleasant cocktail. Well, one evening we decided we were going to drink nothing but Stingers, and whenever the time came to order another round, we would muster up our best-worst Cary Grant impressions and announce to pretty much the entire bar what we would be having. Obnoxious? Yes. So, how does this relate to a demonic film like Michele Soavi's
The Church (aka La Chiesa, aka Cathedral Of Demons)? Well, let's just say that evening, I was by the Devil possessed, as it were. And while no real adventures took place (that I know of), I now have a very strong aversion to crème de menthe.

During the twelfth century, Teutonic knights, having been advised by a creepy priest that its residents are possessed, annihilate an entire Hungarian village. The bodies of the victims are piled in a mass grave, and over the site a gothic cathedral is erected. Eight centuries later, restoration work is being done on the church. New librarian, Evan (Thomas Arana), and art restorer, Lisa (Barbara Cupisti), quickly shack up together. Inside a cracked foundation, Evan discovers a parchment stating that there's something buried beneath the cathedral, and like the avaricious jerk that he is, he sets out to get it for himself. But once the evil is set free, it will take a miracle to imprison it again. Good luck with that.

Let's start this off with a little honesty. I didn't care for Soavi's Stage Fright. It didn't feel especially like it stood out from the pack of Slasher films, and the slickness and gaudiness of the production detracted from the horror aspects, for me. That's not to say that I hated it, because I didn't, but I also didn't feel it was exceptional. I haven't watched it in a few years, so you won't get specifics as to why from me this time around. In The Church, however, Soavi's visual flair is a terrific asset. The camera is constantly in motion, taking in the entirety of the enclosed setting, and the director constantly changes up the angles and compositions to keep things interesting and maintain momentum. The special and makeup effects are high quality for the most part, and they satisfy that Creature Feature hunger I'm sure we all feel from time to time. The score by no less than Keith Emerson, Philip Glass, and über-prog-rock film composers Goblin is excellent. It is synth-y and catchy, propulsive and evocative. A vinyl re-issue of this score would not be undesired by me.

Peter Kropotkin once called prisons "universities of crime," since they were nothing more than mass congregations of criminals under one roof. The film plays on this idea (to an extent at least) with not only the genesis of the church, but also with the structure's role in the film. When the site of the church is chosen, it starts as the scene of a massacre. To put up something holy on the ground where something loathsome occurred is, of course, blasphemous, but it also bestows on the church a dual nature. One the one hand, churches are sanctuaries and places of worship. They are supposed to be safe for the people who enter them. On the other hand, as Mr. Kropotkin pointed out, this church cannot be a place of shelter, having been engineered specifically as a jail. In effect, the people who enter the cathedral are as much prisoners as whatever is buried under the foundation, the priests who reside there, sentinels. At the same time, the cross itself represents a dual meaning. It is a Christian holy symbol, of course, but it is also the bars of this demon's gaol. This is most evident in the giant crucifix in the church's foundation. In the center of the crossbeams is a demon's head, merging the two into a warning about tampering with the seal. 

The film is also heavy on water and reflections as a motif. The very first shot of the film is of a reflection in water shattered by the hooves of a knight's horse. Mira (Olivia Cupisti) the witch soaks her stigmatic feet in the river, and she offers water from this to one of the knights. Young Lotte (Asia Argento) stares at a mirror while in mass, applying her forbidden lipstick. Lisa drinks water from a monstrous fountainhead. The model groom stares at his reflection in a baptismal font and is attacked (psychically at least) by a monster which leaps out at him. Water, normally a purifier and symbol of life, here is an agent of transformation via the power of reflection. Our reflection is the opposite (ever tried cutting your own hair by looking in a mirror?) of how we actually appear, and in The Church this opposition is how evil strikes.

The film also relies heavily on symbols and art/iconography in its story. The parchment Evan finds contains symbols he cannot decipher until he spies its reflection (and there's that again) on a metallic cylinder. Lotte surrounds herself with and applies symbols of what she perceives to be maturity (lipstick, short skirts, nail polish) in an effort to be seen as a sexual being. The idea of stigmata is employed as symbolic of the wounds of Christ, but here they are allowing the Devil to enter his victims (Mira's on the bottom of her foot, another's on a wrist), at least at first. Father Gus (Hugh Quarshie) must literally piece together a puzzle from a torn up painting in an ancient text in order to decipher how the evil can be halted. Lisa is employed in restoring a fresco of the Devil eating the souls of sinners. As the victims begin to hallucinate, much of what they see comes from (or is directly inspired by) extant pieces of art (Baphomet from Eliphas Levi's Transcendental Magic, Boris Vallejo's Vampire's Kiss, Philippe Halsman's In Voluptas Mors, and so forth). Symbols are painted on Lisa's body in blood as she is prepared for a satanic ritual. Father Gus's clerical collar falls away (and into water, incidentally) when he makes a crucial choice. All of this adds layers of interest for the viewer, and makes the film more thoughtful than some others in the genre. This is despite a dearth of characterization, massive logic gaps, and a lack of a central protagonist to invest in on any but the most superficial level. Perhaps Martin Luther sums up this film better than I can: "For where God built a church, there the Devil would also build a chapel." 

MVT: Soavi's direction is assured, stylish, and solid at every turn. He retains visual interest throughout and manages to maintain focus in the chaos of the film's action.

Make Or Break: The Make is the final shot of the film. It is not that the shot is unexpected. In fact, if anything, it is old hat. It is, however, the abruptness of the shot which I found so pleasing. It cuts at the exact moment that it should and displays a sense of subtlety too often lacking in films of this nature.

Score: 6.75/10

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