THE CHURCH (La Chiesa)

Directed by Michele Soavi
Written by Dario Argento and Franco Ferrini
Italy, 1994 [English language soundtrack]

[* * ]

My continuing fascination with Michele Soavi's Dellamorte Dellamore (aka The Cemetery Man, 1994) led me to dig up an uncut version of his 1989 gothic exercise, The Church (La Chiesa). If you, too, are a fan of the later film, brace yourself: this ain't no Dellamorte Dellamore.

The Church is fairly interesting, even though it seems to have suffered at the hands of co-writer and producer Dario Argento, who's at his best when he's working on Dario Argento movies rather than sticking his bloody fingers in someone else's pie. It tells the story of what is essentially a haunted church, built on top of the mass grave where a bunch of Templar Knights (shown in flashback, natch) deposited the bodies of a villageful of witches. As it turns out, the church was built by an alchemist, and it's designed so that a prod at exactly the right spot within the architecture will bring the whole thing tumbling down.

Busybodies Evan (Tomas Arana, the new librarian) and Lisa (Barbara Cupisti, who's doing touch-up work on the frescoes of torture that adorn the walls) get wrapped up in the history of the place when Lisa discovers a hidden parchment. Evan eventually wanders into the wrong part of the building and sets the church's monstrous inner machinery in motion -- the church's denizens become possessed one by one, and an unfortunate incident involving a jackhammer (just watch) has the unintended effect of closing and locking the single exit while a wedding party, schoolchildren and tourists are all trapped inside.

You can imagine. The problem is that you spend most of the movie waiting for all Hell to break lose before you figure out that it's just not going to happen. Soavi has crafted individual scenes that work beautifully, and the whole movie is imbued with doom and foreboding, but at this point he was still no good at stringing those set pieces together into a coherent whole. The result is a ponderous but stylish horror picture that moves fitfully, with a few wonderfully creepy images concealed within its own obscure construction. (I was going to complain about the ersatz Philip Glass on the soundtrack, but then I noticed that the pieces really are by Philip Glass -- this is pre-Candyman, if you're keeping track -- but performed by someone else.)

The Church is a film with a lot of fans, and on a couple of repeated viewings I may well become one of them. But for the time being, I recommend it mainly to Argentophiles and gothic fetishists, who may well find it fascinating. More casual horror fans should beg, borrow, or steal a copy of The Cemetery Man (it's being released in the U.S. in February 1996), which is so far the best horror movie of the decade.

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