Wednesday, December 9, 2015

The Sect (1991)

There’s something innately creepy about hippies, at least on film.  I don’t say this out of any hatred for them; it’s more an observation of their portrayals in cinema.  Even when all hippies do is cavort, and get their boobs painted, and smoke weed, there is a quasi-unsettling aspect to them.  I think this is because they are outside the mainstream life experience (for example, I never lived in a hippie commune, so the experience is foreign to me, though I understand the reasoning behind it).  Even though they are just people, they are still “other.”  They have no rules governing their lives, no restraints placed on them by society, but they espouse their beliefs with a casual zealotry also found in hardcore religious fanatics (though religious fanatics are hardly casual about anything).  Perhaps more than this is the thought that their utopian ideals are rather naïve and doomed to failure by dint of their being commonly unshared with the vast majority of the world.  Naturally, Charles Manson and his Family are held up as the exemplar of how hippie communities and religious cults can be distressingly similar.  They also played a large part in why the hippie lifestyle fell out of popularity as the Sixties drew to a close, I think.  The “experiment” (for want of a better term) was a failure, because the violence and darkness of the real world hippies seemed to want to escape from was inescapable.  

The only way for their culture to succeed would be if every single person on Earth thought exactly the same way (an idea that carries its own share of frightening implications).  But since their ideology is rooted in pure freedom, this means that not only does it allow for people with nebulous intent to take advantage of the situation, but also that the sense of anarchy engendered by their lack of rules makes for a certain vulnerability.  Their passivity leaves them open to attack.  In cinema, conversely, hippie communes are just one short step away from being radical cultists (in fact, they are often referred to as “hippie cults,” and their “gurus” or leaders or whatever often occupy the role of spiritual heads), and very little is scarier than a gang of steadfast ideologues with no societal boundaries coming at you (see the world of American political discourse for further research).  The hippies in the superfluous prologue of Michele Soavi’s The Sect (aka Demons IV aka La Setta aka The Devil’s Daughter) are not only of the victim variety, but they are also past their sell by date (1971 is the year given onscreen, and yes, there were hippies around after 1969, but after that year [being both the apex and the nadir of the movement] the herd was thinning out).

Robed Christ figure Damon (Thomas Arana) shows up at a hippie camping trip, rattles off some “deep” lyrics from The Rolling StonesSympathy for the Devil (just in case there was the slightest danger of the film being subtle), and, with the help of his Satanic biker gang, carves up the young people for some ceremony which apparently just doesn’t come off as planned.  Leap forward twenty years to Frankfurt, Germany, where young Miriam (Kelly Curtis) almost nails hobo-esque (he wears a ratty cloak and sports fingerless knit gloves) Moebius (Herbert Lom) with her car, takes him to her house, and basically allows him to set into motion a chain of events that may bring about the Apocalypse with her as its nexus.

Just to get this out in the open, Soavi’s film (co-written with Gianni Romoli and Dario Argento) is essentially a bald-faced riff on both Rosemary’s Baby and The Omen films.  Even before the plot gets going, this is blindingly obvious.  With that said, the film is also loaded (and I mean loaded) with symbolism.  Clocks and time play huge parts.  The hippies in the film’s opening destroy a clock with their slingshots, trying to stop time (they are, after all, two years beyond the end of their movement).  People constantly state that “it’s time” or that they have to bide their time and wait.  There is a miniature paper house in Miriam’s home with a large clock drawn on one side.  Moebius turns his clock ahead before he sets off to “meet” Miriam (perhaps to move up his time table, perhaps because the clock was off and he is obsessed with accuracy, perhaps neither).  Moebius checks his pocket watch while talking to Miriam, always conscious of the schedule he’s on.  There is a sense that all of these machinations are planned out to the minute, because there is a confluence of events that must take place in order for it all to coalesce (the only indication we get that events have to occur at a certain time is a shot of an eclipse, though this is never addressed as anything other than a visual instance of a “cosmic” occurrence with no exposition or foreshadowing to presage it), but they are put into motion with somewhat less than military precision.  The clock and time are the fatalism of the characters’ ever approaching destiny.

There are also heavy fertility symbols throughout the film.  There is a well (maybe a sewer?) in Miriam’s sub-basement, and she will be submerged in it at a crucial moment.  It’s also a focal point for all of the characters which is returned to constantly.  The water is also turned blue at one point, and this ties into the connection between Miriam and Christianity’s Virgin Mary (whose name in the Aramaic language is Mariam), who is always depicted in blue robes as a symbol of her purity (we also get a shot of a mural with the Virgin Mary on it early in the film, in what is essentially superfluous prologue, number two).  At one point, Miriam lounges in a bathtub full of this blue water and submerges her head, becoming reborn and ready for her upcoming role.  There is a supposedly extinct insect which we are informed symbolizes fertility.  This insect is adorned with a spiral on its back, and this is yet another birth/rebirth motif, although a slightly more esoteric one.  The spiral (which is seen not only on the insect but also in the sub-basement’s skylight and carved into stone in a garden) carries the dual symbology of Miriam’s life spiraling out of her control and the expansion of the circle of life outward from birth (maybe from hers, maybe from the universe’s, maybe both).  Finally, there is the very obvious fertility symbol of rabbits.  Miriam has a collection of rabbit tchotchkes and a live rabbit she calls “Rabbit” (like how Columbo’s dog was “Dog”).  More than this surface metaphor, Rabbit is the insidiousness of Miriam’s fertility, evil wearing a kind face (a little like Moebius).  Rabbit is no mere rabbit.  It watches television while Miriam sleeps (yes, really), changing the channel (but always coming back to a magician pulling one of his kind out of a hat).  Rabbit follows Miriam around, lurking near her at all times, a portent of what is coming.

Of course, this being an Italian horror film, it thrives on its bonkers qualities and specious logic, and they are, in fact, what winds up elevating this one from the pack.  Soavi also knows his way around a camera (as does cinematographer Raffaele Mertes), and The Sect is pleasantly stylish in its visual aspects.  The camera zooms around the pipes in Miriam’s house.  Many shots are gorgeously thoughtful in their compositions.  There are Dutch angles aplenty as well as some interesting uses of closeups, most particularly a nice zoom in to Miriam’s nostrils (you have to see it).  So, even if you don’t buy that a rabbit wants to stay up late channel surfing or that an ersatz Shroud of Turin can smother people (did I not mention that?), you’ll have more than enough here to take in on a pure eye candy level to keep you happy.

MVT:  The look of the film is striking and, though I hate to use this word, sumptuous at times.

Make or Break:  The scene where a character comes back to life and goes nuts (who was basically nuts before death too, so there’s that) is really one for the ages, in my opinion.

Score:  6.5/10             

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