Altared States… Michele Soavi’s THE CHURCH and Robert Eggers’ THE WITCH Reviewed

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The Church. DVD. Region 2. Shameless. 18.

The Witch. BD. Region B. Universal. 15.

The wheels grind slowly here at The House Of Freudstein. Maybe it’s something to do with that split in the space / time continuum we’ve got going on down in the basement… one minute a badly dubbed Italian brat is running away from a shambling mosaic of putrescent human flesh, the next he’s popping up in a fin-de-siecle parallel universe. Makes my fucking head spin, I don’t mind telling you! Anyway, the wheels grind slowly…

… case in point, Robert Eggers’ The Witch, a film released in 2015. When I interviewed Harvey Fenton at Nottingham’s Mayhem Film Festival that year, for a piece which ultimately appeared in Dark Side magazine, he raved to me about this film, citing scenes such as the one in which a child dies in the throes of religious ecstasy

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and enthusing about its possessed goat. “What… better than the possessed goat in Drag Me to Hell?” I asked. “Better than that!”, he assured me. So I promised him I’d watch it. A year went by and finding myself on the winning team at Mayhem 2016’s Flinterrogation quiz (yeah, I do bang on rather a lot about this but what you going to do about it?) I grabbed a couple of BDs as my share of the winners’ swag bag, one of them being The Witch. A month or so after that I finally watched it… and now I’ve got my shit together sufficiently to review it!

The final poke that stirred me from my default state of inertia was the arrival on my in tray of Michele Soavi’s The Church (1981), debuting on UK disc courtesy of Shameless. The striking parallels between the two films strongly suggested to me that they should be considered together. I mean, both of them offer a simplistic, Manichaeist world view in which the principal characters’ loss of faith is precipitated by and / or precipitates an inexorable paradigm shift into a new and malign reality… the other stuff they share in common being caprine capers (or, if you will, hircine horrors) by which the ram Black Phillip eviscerates Ralph Ineson in Eggers’ picture and (a much smarter day’s work, in my estimation) a Rosemary’s Baby reject bonks the beautiful Barbara Cupisti in the bowels of a cathedral crypt during Soavi’s… Country File was never like this!

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Eggers’ New-England Folk Tale (as the film’s subtitle has it) plays out in the 1630s and concerns a family of Puritans (the ever excellent Ineson as patriarch William, Kate Dickie as his wife Catherine and Anya Taylor-Joy as Thomasin, the oldest of several children) who leave their settlement on account of some obscure doctrinal dispute and set up in a small holding in the wilderness, throwing themselves on the bounty and mercy of God…

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… but darker Gods are at work in the woods.

When their infant son is abducted (and a murky, impressionistic Blair Witch-style sequence suggests that he is indeed ritually sacrificed by some hovel-dwelling hag) the family turns in on itself amid mutual suspicions of Satanic involvement. Thomasin becomes prime suspect after searching secretly in the woods, with her brother, for the missing baby but returning alone. Suspicions are not exactly allayed when the boy reappears, only to die in the aforementioned religious ecstasy. As paranoia peaks, recrimination turns into physical confrontation. Black Phillip lends a hand (hoof?) in the ensuing bloody carnage which leaves just one family member standing and ready to throw in their lot with The Dark Side for a truly delirious conclusion.

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The above makes The Witch sound like a pedal-to-the-metal Evil Deadalike but in fact it’s a suspenseful, satisfying, slow burn of a movie with ravishing cinematography (courtesy of Jarin Blaschke) and sound design. Hats off to Harvey (though for me, Black Phillip’s not a patch on the possessed goat in Drag Me To Hell.) You keep expecting a rational explanation or at least an upturn in the family’s miserable fortunes until the penny finally drops, the shock realisation that this just ain’t gonna happen… reminded me of the point in Blow Up where you twig that the mystery is never going to be solved… of watching Match Of The Day pundits acknowledging, long after everybody else had sussed it, that Leicester City were not going to blow their 2015-16 title challenge… and going to bed on the 9th of November when it was obvious that Trump was going to win, while the TV talking heads were still blathering about how Hillary’s best wards were yet to be counted and she was going to turn it around.

Writer / director Eggers plundered the archives of 17th Century witchcraft testimony to mount The Witch as a realistic story and the events in it are real, if only in the minds of its religiously fanatical participants. “Buddha says…” as we were so helpfully reminded in the title sequence to every episode of Monkey: “… that with our thoughts we make the world.” The paranoid Puritan mindset made The USA and the ongoing story of how it, in turn, makes over The World in its own image is, one suspects, going to take a significant twist or two over the next couple of years. One also suspects that we will see, over a similar period, Ms Taylor-Joy emerging as “the new Christina Ricci”…

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Anya Taylor-Joy, emerging as “the new Christina Ricci”… yesterday.

Universal’s BD edition of The Witch looks and sounds quiet beautiful and comes with the bonus of Digital HD Ultraviolet, though I’m too much of a Luddite to have anything more than the vaguest of ideas what that actually means… not such a technophobe thought that I don’t feel justified in having a moan about the clunky interface and slow response of the menus on this disc, problems I’ve encountered on various other Universal releases. It’s a bit short on supplementary features too, boasting precisely… none…. not a sausage… barer than William and Catherine’s family food cupboard!

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Shameless’s Soavi disc is somewhat better apportioned in terms of extras. Alongside the mandatory clutch of trailers for the label’s other releases, you get the featurette Cathedral Of Fear in which the director (still looking cool, if a touch grey and grizzled around the edges) talks about his sophomore feature effort and how it emerged from the remnants of Lamberto Bava’s abandoned Demons 3. He acknowledges that Argento was a generous producer who scrupulously avoided stepping on his toes, while admitting that he found  it difficult to see The Church and his follow-up effort The Sect (1991) marketed as “Argento productions.” Soavi also concedes that he, Argento and Franco Ferrini struggled to come up with an effective ending (no foolin’) and remembers trying to coax the enigmatic smile required for the film’s closing shot out of Asia Argento, whom he describes as “handsome, attractive and talentish.” “Now everyone has gone their own way…” concludes MS “… but it was a very beautiful period of my life.” Nice.

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And what of The Church itself? On its release, almost (cripes!) thirty years ago, I reviewed the film with something less than whole-hearted enthusiasm… “style over substance” was the burden of my complaint against it. With hindsight and in the light of my previous championing of such comparably amorphous entities as Argento’s Inferno and Fulci’s The Beyond, that verdict does seem rather a perverse one. It was arrived at in the context of my expectations following Soavi’s stunning directorial debut Stagefright (1987), a cracking giallo (arguably the last worthwhile offering in that genre) that packed more than its fair share of visual flair but proceeded, nevertheless, along the ruthlessly logical lines of Luigi Montefiori’s script and producer Joe D’Amato’s commercial demands. At this remove, having very much enjoyed this Shameless release, I’m more inclined to celebrate Soavi’s wayward pictorial sense than to question it, especially in view of the Pasta Paura drought that we’ve suffered in recent decades.

The Church couldn’t be further removed from ruthless logic, opening with a posse of Teutonic Knights galloping through a lush forest at daybreak to the accompaniment of Keith Emerson’s infernal fugue (the film’s score, by Emerson, Philip Glass and Goblin – which at this point was effectively Fabio Pignatelli – is one aspect of The Church with which I’ve never had any issues). Acting on a hot tip-off from an over acting village idiot (Gianfranco De Grassi, “Curlie” from Aldo Lado’s notorious Night Train Murders), the knights storm the cave HQ of some devil worshipping peasants and put them to the sword.

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This sequence features a memorable cross-shaped P-O-V shot through a knight’s helmet visor, suggesting again a world shaped by a narrow world view. After the witches have been buried in a communal grave and the site marked with a huge cross, an epic steadicam shot brings us to the present day and to the cathedral which has been erected on this spot, where one of the presiding prelates is spaghetti splatter legend and Stagefright alumnus Giovanni Lombardo Radice aka John Morghen.

Yuppie dark ages buff Tomas Arana arrives at the church to assist Barbara Cupisti (another Stagefright alumnus and Soavi’s real life main squeeze while this movie was being made) in the restoration of a demonic mural (shades of Pupi Avati’s masterly The House With Laughing Windows), while scowling Father Feodor Chaliapin (Name Of The Rose, Inferno) sermonises endlessly about the ever-present threat of demons. Apparently the ghosts of those Teutonic knights are also hanging around the place, because somebody in the foley department is working overtime banging coconut shells together to render the signature hoof tattoos of their spectral mounts. Arana, who has already displaced a marked tendency towards flakiness with his preference for the perusal of medieval inscriptions over the charms of Cupisti, is possessed by evil spirits while prying into the basement pit of souls. We know that he’s possessed because he stops combing his hair, sits at a typewriter endlessly tapping out the legend “666” (yes, we’ve seen The Shining too) and starts foaming at the mouth over Asia Argento’s ankle socks. More spectacularly, Arana is later seen in a telephone box – not changing into a superhero costume, as you might think, but tearing out his own heart and offering the still pumping organ to a boiling blood-red sky.

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When the church warden skewers himself to the basement cross with a pneumatic drill he activates an intricate system of cogs and levers (just think of Howard Hawks’ Land Of The Pharaohs, and if you haven’t seen that try the board game “Mousetrap”) that seal our hapless protagonists (now including a party of school children, models and fashion photographers on a location shoot, and assorted tourists) off from the outside world. In connection with this the characters explicitly reference Fulcanelli, whose “Mysteries of The Cathedrals” tome also inspired Pupi Avatis’ The Arcane Enchanter, 1996 (though it was Avati himself who subsequently told me that Fulcanelli was a mythical rather than historical figure.)

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At this point the plot, which was already as creaky as one of those Medieval ratchet devices, flies out of the stained glass window as the increasingly bemused looking participants are left to wander around the cathedral confines, rapidly losing their marbles. Antonella Vitale, who for most of the film has little to do except flounce around looking gorgeous, is nearly squeezed to death by a wedding dress she’s modelling at one point, but the fact that Argento can manage such an arch comment on the state of his relationship with this actress can only have encouraged the above mentioned doubts about the authorship of La Chiesa. Indeed, it’s interesting to note that the only other memorable scene involving La Vitale (a ludicrous one in which she pulls her face off) has been crudely cribbed from Poltergeist, a film on which producer Stephen Spielberg reputedly called more shots than nominal director Tobe Hooper.

Soavi swears that Argento was no back seat director but here has been charged with cooking up something from an Argento outline so half-baked that it could probably induce listeria poisoning (“My brief to Michele was to explore the feelings I had about life in contemporary Germany beginning a new Middle Ages.”) The viewer will have to make up his / her own mind about the exact working relationship between director Soavi and the man who “presented” his second and third feature films.

Elsewhere a castor mounted demon is wheeled in to spirit a girl off into a cloister; two bikers tunnel their way out of the church, only to discover that the light at the end of the tunnel really is an oncoming train; an old buffer’s face literally rings a bell after his wife has decapitated him (off camera, regrettably, likewise the eagerly awaited demise of John Morghen) and a risible rubber fish monster leaps out of the font to clamp its latex jaws around an unfortunate bystander’s head. Stivaletti’s attempted show stopper is an Archimboldo demon head that finally bursts through the floor of the cathedral and reminded me of nothing so much as the climax to Roy Ward Baker’s Quatermass And The Pit.

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The mounting confusion is hardly mitigated by the fact that various characters don’t let their deaths discourage them from returning to participate further in the escalating surreal shenanigans and in a heart warming cast reunion where they witness Arana (now in full Devil Rides Out billy-goat drag) and Cupisti restaging the devil impregnation scene from a certain Roman Polanski movie… and then that unconvincing coda.

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He’s so horny… horny, horny, horny…

The Shameless DVD looks OK but the music and sound effects seem to have been mixed kinda low. I wish they’d included a 5.1 audio option (when I saw La Chiesa in Rome on the big screen with a nice sound system, it proved to be a pretty immersive experience.) In fact I’d really like to have seen their (near) simultaneous Blu-ray release but you know what they say… bloggers can’t be choosers!

This release also comes with reversible sleeve options and for once I prefer the “newly commissioned art work” to the “classic” imagery on the flip… though I’m not sure they would have gotten away with it back in the heyday of the Video Packaging Review Committee… those pesky kids!

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