Shameless’s UK disc debut of Michele Soavi’s 1991 effort The Sect (in both DVD and BD formats) follows hot on the hooves of the similar service they recently rendered to Soavi’s The Church (1989.) In my review of that one, elsewhere on this site, I recanted my long-held conviction that its many splendid visual set pieces could not compensate for a narrative that oscillates between risible and non-existent. On relection, this verdict was difficult to square with my oft-professed love for the likes of Inferno, The Beyond and City Of The Living Dead. I’ve performed a similar critical volte face after watching The Sect on Blu-ray, though it’s probably the lesser of the two films Soavi directed with Dario Argento as producer. Both of them kick in like gangbusters, only to lose momentum as bravura visuals alternate with wilfully obscure exposition through their overlong running time (The Sect clocks in just shy of two hours) en route to unsatisfying denouements. No accident, perhaps, that this one was released in the US as The Devil’s Daughter, possibly with the baffling conclusion to Hammer’s To The Devil A Daughter (1976) in mind.
If anything, The Sect’s opening is even stronger than that of The Church, slapping the viewer upside his/her head with a 1-2 sucker punch. First we witness the end of the ’60s dream as members of a Californian hippy colony are slaughtered at the behest of Damon (Church alumnus Tomas Arana), a wild-eyed mystic with a penchant for discerning profundities in the lyrics of classic rock songs (remind you of anyone?) before crossing Continents and decades to “present day” Frankfurt, where John Morghen blows his own brains out in a metro station after police discover that he’s been taking the words of the Tony Basil song Stop That Man (“He’s getting away with my heart in his hand”) rather too literally. Reassuring stuff, given that Morghen (the perennial super-masochist / martyr of pasta paura cinema) died such a disappointing death in The Church.
Frankfurt magistrate John Ford (just one of several, vaguely irritating, buffish character names) issues doomy pronouncements about the activities of sinister Satanic outfits. He’s particularly concerned about “The notorious Faceless Sect operating in the US during the ’70s”, a cult founded by the mysterious Moebius Kelly. The briefly glimpsed Ford is played by Donald O’Brien, who’s certainly got form in this field, having run a Kito cult in his role as Doctor Butcher M.D. in the Marino Girolami film of that title.
Before we can work out what the hell is going on, elementary schoolteacher Miriam (Kelly Curtis, Jamie Lee’s prettier big sister) runs over a jay-walking hobo (Moebius Kelly himself, played by Herbert Lom) and takes him back to her place to recuperate. The old geezer’s got a funny way of showing his gratitude – he bungs a dung beetle up Miriam’s nose while she’s asleep and Celtic imagery begins to invade her dreams, which apparently signifies that she’s now ripe to be knocked up with the devil’s spawn. As the film proceeds, it becomes clear that many of the people around her are conniving at precisely this aim. Shades of Val Lewton and Mark Robson’s The Seventh Victim (1943)…
… and indeed, Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby (1968) whose demonic insemination scene was restaged at the climax of The Church. This time out the titular sect contrive to get Miriam raped by a stork that jumps out of the submerged well in her basement… a submerged basement well of which she was previously unaware … did I already mention that this film’s plotting isn’t exactly its strong point?
Just as The Church proceeded from a vague Dario Argento diktat (“My brief to Michele was to explore the feelings I had about life in contemporary Germany beginning a new Middle Ages”), so Argento stipulated certain of The Sect’s salient imagery, including the Satanists’ full moon face ripping ceremony which (with the aid of Pino Donaggio’s spellbinding main theme) works rather well, plus some stuff that really doesn’t, e.g. the ongoing shenanigans concerning a kind of anti-Shroud Of Turin which, we learn, smothers some people but brings others (whom you’d prefer to be dead) back to life. What I really want to know about this flying snot rag, though, is… does it smell of death? And one of its victims, Kathryn, is ideally placed to comment on this, played as she is by Maria Angela Giordano of Burial Ground infamy.
Struggling to impose some of his own identity amid all of this Argentiana, Soavi seems more intent on stuffing every available frame with arcane symbolism and cryptic allusions than he is with pulling all of these disparate strands of material together in a way that makes some kind of narrative sense. At one point he offers us a channel-hopping bunny which tunes into footage of the director himself doing conjuring tricks on TV! You’ll like it… but not a lot!
It would be unfair to dismiss Kelly Curtis as just another sorry sibling recruited by the spaghetti exploitation industry solely on account of kid sister Jamie Lee’s scream queen exploits (in much the same way that Italian producers made a minor star out of Tisa Farrow and even attempted to do so with Neil Connery, before he forsook international espionage and returned to working as a milkman)… she already had a decent acting pedigree quite independently of JLC, who was born the same year that Kelly appeared as a little girl in Mom and Dad’s The Vikings (1958.) Plus, she’s actually rather good, here, ably personifying the anxieties suffered by pregnant women in a film that deals with such concerns rather more subtly than e.g. Alien (1979) or Humanoids From The Deep (1980), if considerably less so than Polanski’s picture. No doubt Herbert Lom later pleaded ignorance of any violent scenes that take place in The Sect…
Having moaned in my review of The Church that I was only sent the DVD version, I’m happy to report that they sent me The Sect on Blu-ray and it looks just great. Given the two audio options available, I chose the Italian language one (with English subtitles) because it’s in 5.1 Surround. The mix proved strangely unadventurous and I didn’t notice any significant benefit until the outbreak of Pino Donaggio’s gorgeous main theme during the moon lit face removal ceremony… that one always gets the hairs standing up on the back of my neck to an extent only bettered by Fabio Frizzi’s Voci Dall Nulla at the climax of The Beyond.
Extras include trailers for this and other Shameless releases plus the continuation of the Soavi interview from their Church disc, this instalment entitled Beauty And Terror.” Hardly surprisingly, he talks up his collaborations with the likes of Argento and Terry Gilliam but it’s gratifying to hear the director acknowledging his debts to Fulci and D’Amato (“This man had an energy not human!”), too. His “compare and contrast” reports on the various directors’ personalities, working methods and the atmospheres on their respective sets are most enlightening. Soavi also reveals that Tarantino offered him the direction of From Dusk Till Dawn (1996), which he now regrets turning down.
Given her grisly former glories, it’s interesting to hear Soavi detailing the way in which the demise of Maria Angela Giordano’s character was cut, having been deemed too gruesome. We also learn that the Sergio Stivaletti special effect by which a bug climbs up Kelly’s nose was shot with a camera that was formally Mario Bava’s.
The Sect is an uneven film, no question, but it’s probably better than anything Argento himself has managed since 1987 and only a terminally hard-to-please pasta paura buff could fail to find something to enjoy herein, if only the first screen teaming (ish… they don’t actually share a scene) of Italian Horror’s “Mr & Mrs Most Mutilated”, Morghen and Giordano. Perhaps some sinister Satanists can arrange for him to impregnate her… or perhaps even they would find the probable results of that coupling just too daunting to contemplate!