Sunday, January 16, 2011

Get Me Out of The Church on Time

Mark: This isn't going to be a film review in the conventional sense. A few months back, Stacie Ponder of Final Girl asked her readers to nominate their top twenty horror movies, then tallied the votes and spent SHOCKtober 2010 counting down the results. Coming in at number 240 was an Italian horror flick titled La Chiesa ("The Church"), which netted a whopping three votes.

A couple of months later, now that The Church is available through Netflix's wonderful Watch Instantly service, Ms Ponder has chosen it as her latest Final Girl Film Club selection. Horror mavens throughout the universe are invited to check this obscure curiosity and weigh in with their objective, unbiased opinions.

Except, I guess, for me. I was one of the three people who voted for The Church in the first place, so my task here is probably to explain what the heck I was thinking!

Julie: Don't blame me, I voted for Prince of Darkness! Although we both plugged for Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2, so I guess I can't throw stones, huh?

It would be a guilty pleasure if we felt guilty about it.

Mark: Let's start with the obligatory basics. The Church started out as the third entry in the Demons series, in which people turn into monsters and run amuck with glorious illogic.

Julie: By illogic, I assume you mean the part where the characters in the film-within-a-film offer the only explanation we ever get as to why the people in the theater watching the movie are turning into demons?

Mark: Perhaps it's a sophisticated meditation on the power of art to influence the impressionable and weak-minded. In the same light, we can probably blame the hijinks in The Church on those awesome Bosch-style frescoes. Truly a cautionary tale for these media-saturated times!

Won't somebody please think of the children?

Mark: I adore the original Demons too, not least for its cheerful indifference to explanations and plot, but The Church is a bit more ambitious. There's a historical flashback in which heretic-hunting Teutonic Knights massacre a village full of peasants on spurious charges of witchcraft, then erect a humongous Gothic cathedral over the mass grave. In the present day, meddling scholars dig around in the church basement and unleash some kind of nebulous evil, people start seeing monsters and flipping out, the doors slam shut thanks to an archaic clockwork failsafe mechanism, and mayhem ensues. It's all very pretty, thanks largely to director Michele Soavi (Cemetery Man, The Devil's Daughter), and like most great Italian horror movies it doesn't make a lick of sense.

Whoa! Am I blowing your mind?

Julie: The Beyond makes perfect sense! But were those witchcraft charges really spurious? It's kind of unclear, which is, I think, one of the main charms of this movie.

I mean, does having a cut on your foot shaped like a cross mean you're a witch, or that you stepped on something sharp? Does one hand moving in a pile of dead bodies mean a corpse is coming back to life, or that some poor sucker got thrown onto the trash heap before he was dead yet, like in Ravenous? Maybe that horse slipped and fell into the pit. Maybe religious mania can, if you take it far enough, feel like tripping balls to the people who are experiencing it, and they see all sorts of weird shit. You know, in their minds.

Mark: I do love that slippery vagueness! Unlike the original Demons, the evil seems to have an actual origin, but the nature of that origin is ambiguous. Were the peasants really devil-worshippers, or does the evil originate from the violence of the knights, or from the suppression of the religious authorities? Movies that deal with witchcraft may shed crocodile tears for the poor oppressed pagans, but it usually turns out that they really did have awesome witchy powers, which means the witch-hunters were justified in burning them. This is one of the few cases where the filmmakers have left it genuinely unclear.

Julie: Agreed. Repressive torturing clerics = the forces of good always sat kind of funny with me.

Mark: This seems like a natural trap for horror filmmakers. Unless you're producing a Scooby Doo episode, it's always more exciting to assume that the monsters, demons, and witches are real, even if it validates the excesses of the monster-hunters. Otherwise you're just creating a finger-wagging treatise about religious fanaticism.

Julie: Well, yes. I feel like you used to see more of that in the '60s and '70s. Like in Beneath the Planet of the Apes, where the mutants are worshipping the Bomb. Where have all the social critiques gone?

Oh, the humanity.

Mark: And it's equally unclear whether the demons even exist at all. The previous Demons movies presented the monsters as tangible fact, but in this one, they're seen in fleeting glimpses and feverish hallucinations, and even the awesome apparitions that grace the film's climax are prone to vanish again in the blink of an eye. There's clearly something bad hidden in the vaults, but is this really a story about demonic possession, or ghostly haunting, or just ergot-induced mass hysteria?

Julie: I actually really love the way you never get a particularly good look at the monster effects. I keep thinking, if you'd seen this on a movie screen when if first came out, back when you didn't have the option of backing up or pausing to see if you really saw what you thought you saw... damn, that must've been effective. They used to make movies like that, where your imagination had to fill in the blanks around the, y'know, quickly glimpsed rubber monster.

Kind of like Psycho, now that I think about it. There's no shower-stabbing there until your mind fills it in.

Mark: I'd agree that a lot of modern horror movies suffer from over-exposing their monsters. (Not to mention the original Hellraiser and its pitiful ghoul-on-a-string.) I don't know if that's a universal rule, though, and sometimes it serves the purposes of the story to get a good look at the beastie. But in the case of The Church, the effect of "did I really see that?" is perfect for the occasion. I almost feel bad about spoiling the mood with the following awesome screencap.

Admit it, you need to see this movie.

Mark: Whether they're real or not, the visuals are great. Aside from the awesome creepiness of the cathedral itself, The Church features some wonderful gargoyle monsters, and the sequence where the scheming librarian digs up something sinister from the church basement is every bit as trippy as the equivalent scene in The Keep.

Julie: The Keep is a good reference here. If you've seen that movie, then you'll be well-prepared for similar clouds of music-video style fog.

Mark: You know, Netflix also has The Keep on its instant streaming service. Potential film club pick, hint hint!

No, Evan! Don't go into the light!

Mark: I'm also very fond of the droning, ominous soundtrack, which we can attribute largely to Philip Glass.

Julie: You mean that tinkling repetitive electro track that went on so long that I yelled out, "wow, this sounds just like Philip Glass"?

Mark: I was just looking up info on the soundtrack album, and that sucker is, like, nine minutes long. Amazingly, it seems even longer in the actual movie.

Ah, the eighties... truly a golden age of horror movie soundtracks. Those were the days when Tangerine Dream strode the earth like an orange titan. Will we ever see their like again?

Julie: Don't I wish. These days the best we can hope for is something like the ending theme to The Cottage, where you get heavy metal headbangers thrashing out "Kill kill kill!" Which, don't get me wrong, is awesome.

Mark: And we shouldn't slight the demented banjo strumming from the Ravenous soundtrack. But let's move on before this turns into a list of our favorite horror movie scores.

Not a special effect.

Mark: While I'm cataloguing the things I love about this movie, I can't neglect the wizened old bishop played by Feodor Chaliapin Jr., who seems to spend his spare time hanging around with a pair of creepy cowled statues. Chaliapin also appeared in Dario Argento's Inferno as the alchemical architect Varelli.

Julie: The creepy guy in the wheelchair near the end of the movie? He was good ranter. He rants good here, too.

Mark: I don't know if he actually had any lines in Inferno. I think he did all his acting with his eyebrows.

Julie: Didn't he? I thought I remembered ranting. Or maybe that was just the Mother of Shadows winding up for her big 'DEATH!' screamfest before she turned into a science-class model skeleton in a cape.

We pause to review the relevant sequence from Inferno, and discover that Chaliapin delivers one brief but excellent rant via an electronic voicebox widget that makes him sound like the warbly guy-full-of-bugs from Prince of Darkness.

Cowls never go out of style.

Mark: The character of Varelli in Inferno, incidentally, was modeled on the 20th-century occultist Fulcanelli, author of Mystery of the Cathedrals. Fulcanelli and his book are referenced heavily in The Church, giving the proceedings an extra layer of ominous fake significance. I seem to be a real sucker for this combination of vagueness, creepy atmosphere, and pretentious intimations of unspeakable cosmic truth. It's everything I love about John Carpenter's Prince of Darkness, plus rubber monsters!

Julie: Yes, extra extra points for good use of real-world weirdness to prop up fictional weirdness! This is practically a lost art these days, when people just make up lame legends instead of looking up actual legends, which are always far weirder.

Mark: Yeah, that's a good point. Nowadays, whenever people start up with hokum like "They say that the devil walks the Earth in human form and gets you in the elevator," I just want to yell "Liar!" and throw things at the screen.

Although I haven't read Fulcanelli's book, I assume he didn't say anything about excavating sacks of evil from church basements. But come to think of it, that's probably why Evan the creepy librarian blithely went ahead and dug it up. If he'd only been reading Nostradamus instead, he'd have been properly forewarned about all this demon business.

Maybe he should have checked the appendix.

Julie: It just occurred to me you haven't mentioned the fact that Asia Argento is in this movie.

Mark: You know, I took a look at the Netflix user comments for this movie, and I swear that every single one of them goes on at length about the film debut of 13-year-old Asia. It starts to seem a little pervy after a while, especially when they lavish all this praise on the wide-eyed nymphet and have nothing to say about grown-up babe Barbara Cupisti, who spends much of the movie lounging around in sheer bedwear and eventually humps a gargoyle. Suffice to say that, if you ever wanted to see Dario Argento's teenage daughter getting her mouth washed out with soap, then this is the fetish movie you've been waiting for.

You're very welcome.