Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Retro Review: THE SECT (1991)

(Italy - 1991; US release 1992)

Directed by Michele Soavi. Written by Dario Argento, Giovanni Romoli and Michele Soavi. Cast: Kelly Curtis, Herbert Lom, Tomas Arana, Maria Angela Giordano, Michel Adatte, Carla Cassola, Angelina Maria Boeck, Giovanni Lombardo Radice, Niels Gullov, Donald O'Brien, Yasmine Ussani. (Unrated, 117 mins) 

The second and final collaboration between director Michele Soavi and producer/co-writer Dario Argento (following 1989's THE CHURCH), THE SECT is finally out on Blu-ray in the US, where it's fallen into relative obscurity over the last quarter century since its VHS release as THE DEVIL'S DAUGHTER. There was talk that Anchor Bay was planning to release THE SECT during the big Eurocult DVD explosion around 2000 or so, but it never materialized, possibly due to expensive music rights clearance issues with the prominent inclusion of America's "A Horse With No Name" over the opening credits and into the first scene. A visionary filmmaker with an eclectic group of mentors--he was an actor and a regular assistant to both Argento and Lucio Fulci, and he found an unexpected fan in Terry Gilliam, who saw his 1987 film STAGEFRIGHT at a European film festival and hired him to handle second unit on THE ADVENTURES OF BARON MUNCHAUSEN--Soavi's films from 1987 to 1994 constitute the last gasp of greatness from the golden age of Italian horror. Things had been on the decline for years, with aging directors moving to TV, Fulci ailing and effectively retired, and Argento beginning the long, slow descent into mediocrity that's ongoing to this day. Soavi was supposed to be the savior of Italian horror, but its fate was sealed long before the health problems of Soavi's young son, born with a rare liver disease that he wasn't expected to beat, prompted the director to put his career on hold indefinitely following his 1994 masterpiece DELLAMORTE DELLAMORE, aka CEMETERY MAN, which is more or less the end of an era. By the time Soavi's son beat the odds and bounced back from what was considered a terminal illness, Italian horror was over aside from the occasional Argento disappointment, and Soavi found a home on Italian TV, where he remains a busy and in-demand hired gun to this day.

THE SECT is absolutely brilliant on a technical level. There's inspired visual flourishes and fluid and often tricky camera work that makes it a dazzling and colorful film to look at, but the script feels like a patchwork hodgepodge of ROSEMARY'S BABY and THE WICKER MAN, with recycled Argento elements (particularly INFERNO, with its secret gateway to Hell and a murderous evil arising during lunar eclipse) and Soavi foreshadowing some DELLAMORTE DELLAMORE motifs to come, most notably a briefly reanimated corpse and the changing appearance of tiny figures in a snow globe on the heroine's bedside table. The film opens in southern California in 1970, when a group of free-spirited hippies are slaughtered by members of a cult ostensibly led by the very Charles Manson-like Damon (Tomas Arana), who quotes Rolling Stones lyrics and is revealed to be a middleman who answers to a wealthy, unseen figure in the back of a nearby parked limo who tells him to wait patiently, that his time will come, and it "may be years down the road." Cut to Frankfurt, Germany in 1991, as a young woman has her heart cut out by a deranged man (Giovanni Lombardo Radice), who is cornered by police in a train station and insists "They made me do it!" before grabbing a gun and blowing his brains out. A shabbily-dressed old man (the legendary Herbert Lom) is nearly run over by schoolteacher Miriam Kreisl (Kelly Curtis), who takes him to her house to get some rest. He dies the next morning after going through a door and finding a hidden basement beneath the house with a deep well with very blue water, leaving behind a shroud with his face outlined on it. Numerous other bizarre occurrences take place around Miriam: the mother of one of her students vanishes; her colleague Kathryn (Mariangela Giordano of BURIAL GROUND) is attacked by the shroud when it gets caught in a wind gust and promptly starts to behave in a possessed manner before being stabbed to death and coming back to life in the hospital; strange ribbon-like turquoise strands start appearing in Miriam's tap water; she finds a creepy woman wandering around in the basement; and she starts getting messages on her answering machine from the dead man, who is revealed to be Moebius Kelly, the leader of the Satanic cult and the man in the limo in the 1970 prologue. His plan is, of course, to use the innocent--and presumably virginal--Miriam as the vessel to deliver Satan reborn, as she faces the terrifying realization that almost everyone in her life--present and past--is part of a conspiracy to ensure that this happens.

It's a tough call, but THE SECT might be the straight-up strangest work in Argento's entire filmography. If it feels like it's pieces of several scripts stitched together, that's because it was. Soavi incorporated parts of a still-unfilmed script he wrote in the '80s titled THE WELL, while Argento is said to have had the biggest input in the 1970 prologue. While this wasn't a Steven Spielberg/Tobe Hooper, POLTERGEIST situation, Argento's paw prints are all over both THE SECT and THE CHURCH. As was the case with Lamberto Bava's two DEMONS films, producer/co-writer Argento was a constant presence on the set (look at any behind-the-scenes photo from DEMONS and Bava is standing there listening while Argento is pointing and appearing to give instructions), and it's been documented that Soavi was slightly frustrated by Argento's insistence on being involved in every aspect of THE CHURCH. Argento toned down the control-freak act and backed off Soavi a bit during the production of THE SECT, but his involvement is felt throughout, mostly from a recycling of ideas and images from INFERNO and, to a lesser extent, SUSPIRIA, so much so that one could arguably view THE SECT as an unofficial spinoff of the "Three Mothers" saga. Other bits obviously conceived by Soavi either foreshadow DELLAMORTE (the snow globe, the corpse of Kathryn coming back to life and attacking Miriam, the mythic elements of death and rebirth) or reference THE CHURCH, most notably the idea of a demonic sect operating in a secret underground location of a building that's a portal to hell (see also SUSPIRIA, INFERNO). It's very deliberately paced and even a tad overlong at just under two hours, and there's some moments that just don't work: the shroud attacking Kathryn is unintentionally hilarious; the constantly-invoked rabbit motif is overdone, especially the part where Miriam's apparently sect-controlled pet bunny watches TV and uses the remote control, resulting in a bunny reaction shot when it sees a magician (Soavi) pulling a rabbit out of a hat on a TV show; and a late-film sexual assault of Miriam by a demonic stork that crawls out of the basement well probably read a lot better on the page than it looks on the screen.

THE SECT is a flawed jumble of a film whose story is frequently an unwieldy mess, but it's so well-made and carefully crafted on a visual level, and so bizarre if looked at as a nightmarish fever dream that its lofty ambitions carry the weight and help it hit more often than it misses. The script really could've used one more draft and a final polish to tighten the plot a bit, but it mostly works. Lom, in what's probably his last great role, commands the screen as Moebius, and Arana makes the most of his limited screen time, with one memorable shot of the stoned Damon glaring into the camera as Soavi dissolves to a blazing sunset that's one of the most effective images of the filmmaker's career. Curtis, the eldest daughter of Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh, is fine as the naive and almost childlike Miriam. Soavi settled on the actress after his first choice, A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 4 and 5 star Lisa Wilcox, turned him down when she found out she was pregnant. Curtis, two years older than Jamie Lee, never found the level of fame and success enjoyed by her younger sister, but she never really vigorously pursued it either. She worked as a stockbroker after graduating from college in the late '70s and into the early '80s before giving acting a shot when Jamie Lee got her a tiny part as one of Dan Aykroyd's former fiancee's friends in 1983's TRADING PLACES (she's wearing the blue headband in this clip). Other than THE SECT, her only starring role in a feature film was in an obscure 1987 German comedy called MAGIC STICKS. She had a few guest spots on TV shows like THE EQUALIZER, HUNTER, and STAR TREK: DEEP SPACE NINE, but her most prominent role after THE SECT was as a regular on the 1996-99 UPN series THE SENTINEL, which she left after the first season. Curtis' last acting credit was a guest spot on a 1999 episode of JUDGING AMY, and from then on, she's been credited on several of her sister's films as her personal assistant.

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