Following the completion of my Dario Argento project, I felt myself suffering from a distinct lack of Argento in my life. As such, I had to try and fill this lack with some of his other work. Upon beginning the retrospective, I decided not to include films that Argento had written but not directed, as this would have included a large body of films that were never released in the U.S. and would thus have been nearly impossible to track down. Most of the films to which he contributed a story or script idea in the heyday of his career did cross over, however, and I was able to track down a DVD copy of La chiesa (The Church). La chiesa was intended to be the third film in the series and is considered to be an official sequel according to some sources, but it’s unclear how it fits into that series.
Lamberto Bava (son of director Mario Bava) had previously served as the assistant director on Argento’s 1982 film Tenebrae, and the two collaborated again on Demoni and Demoni 2, the latter of which was the film debut of a very young Asia Argento, with Bava directing and Argento contributing to the script. However, a film originally titled The Ogre (directed by Bava and written by Dardano Sacchetti, who contributed to the scripts for Demoni and Demoni 2) was released as Demoni 3: The Ogre in 1988, with La chiesa following in 1989. 1991 saw the release of yet another film titled Demoni 3, directed by Umberto Lenzi, who had previously directed 1969’s Legion of the Damned from a script by—you guessed it—Dario Argento. Adding to the confusion, Bava did not direct La chiesa; it was instead directed by Michele Soavi, another member of that generation of Italian horror directors. All of this also fails to note that there were at least three other films that had the name “Demoni” applied to them as a marketing strategy; simply put, it’s ultimately unclear whether or not this film should be considered as a text which is part of an official ongoing narrative or simply as a text to be discussed in relation to the other texts made by its creators.
Regardless, the film works well as a standalone horror movie, and has Argento’s fingerprints all over it even if it was directed by someone else. Long ago, Teutonic Knights came upon a village that was supposedly inhabited by witches. An inquisitor damned the village when he saw one of the inhabitants with crucifix-shaped scars on her feet, and the knights slaughtered the entire population and buried all of the bodies in a mass grave; the location was then consecrated with a giant cross, and a church was built atop this grave to seal the great evil inside. One child (Asia Argento) almost escapes, but is simply the last victim—or so it seems. In present day (1989) Italy, Evan Altereus (Tomas Arana) arrives at the titular church, where he is taking over as the librarian. He meets art restorer Lisa (Barbara Cupisti), who is working to revitalize a mural that shows the image of souls being tormented by a giant demon and his smaller attendants. Evan also meets the Bishop (Feodor Chaliapin, Jr.), who is obsessed with the maintenance of the church, and Father Gus (Hugh Quarshie), who spends a great deal of his time practicing archery and imagining that he is either a Teutonic Knight or shooting at one. Lotte (Asia Argento), the preteen daughter of the church groundskeeper, lives in the church as well.
Evan becomes fascinated by the gothic cathedral’s history, talking incessantly to Lisa about the designs of gothic churches and the oddness of the fact that no royal or high clergyman had ever been buried there. Renovations in the basement lead to the discovery of a scroll that becomes the focal point of Evan’s obsession, ultimately leading him to find the cross/seal; he breaks this seal and becomes the first person possessed by demonic spirits. Ultimately, as the groundskeeper and others fall under the influence of evil, the church’s built-in failsafes, designed by the alchemist architect, seal the church’s doors, trapping the aforementioned characters inside along with a field trip group of about twenty nine-year-olds, an argumentative young biker couple, an elderly couple, and a small bridal party. As the hand of evil closes around them, Father Gus races to save himself and Lotte.
First things first: this movie, like a lot of Argento’s directorial work, doesn’t hold up narratively or logically. The opening scene, featuring the slaughter of an entire village, raises a lot of questions from the first moments. Are the inhabitants of this village actually witches? Is Asia Argento’s character immortal, or is she reborn in the present day? I want to say that the backstory would have a stronger impact if it was made clear that the villagers were innocent and that the possessing entity was created out of the evil of slaughtering so many innocents, but there’s not enough evidence against that reading to definitively state that is not already the case. Even if we accept that (a) the villagers were witches, and that (b) the witches were in league with demons, and thus (c) the demons are entombed evil who escape and begin to possess the church inhabitants, there are still so many things left unexplained. Why does the demon-capturing failsafe only take effect after possessed Evan returns from ripping out his own insides and stalking Lisa at home? He could have never come back, in which case a demon made it into the real word beyond the church without consequence. Why does Father Gus have flashbacks about Teutonic Knights, and is he the knight in that sequence or the knight’s killer?
So much is left unexplained that the film fails under minimal scrutiny. That having been said, this is still a very effective and scary film. The gore here is shocking because so much of the terror comes from slowly-building tension of watching possessed people act in eerie and creepy ways toward the unsuspecting innocents they have infiltrated. Evan’s full on demonic appearance is deeply unsettling in all of its practical effects glory, and it’s only one of the haunting images on display throughout. There are visuals here that I don’t think Argento would have been able to realize with his own skill sets, and there’s a writhing mass of dead bodies at the end that’s truly glorious in all its grotesque hideousness. Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like the film ever got a DVD release in the original Italian, and the dubbing work here is notably bad; Lotte and an adult woman even have the exact same voice in the dub, which is really distracting. Overall, however, if you’re suffering from a lack of Argento in your life, like I was, it’ll help to fill that void, and is an interesting experiment in collaboration for Argento fans.
-Mark “Boomer” Redmond