Color, 1989, 101 mins. 59 secs.
Directed by Michele Soavi
Starring Hugh Quarshie, Tomas Arana, Barbara Cupisti, Feodor Chaliapin, Asia Argento, Antonella Vitale, Giovanni Lombardo Radice
Severin Films (UHD & Blu-ray) (US R0/RA 4K/HD) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9), Scorpion Releasing (Blu-ray) (US RA HD) / WS (1.78:1) (16:9), Shameless Screen Entertainment (Blu-ray & DVD) (UK RB/R2 HD/PAL) / WS (1.66:1) (16:9), Happinet (Blu-ray) (Japan RA HD) / WS (1.78:1) (16:9), Anchor Bay (DVD) (US R1 NTSC) / WS (1.85:1: (16:9)
After pulling off a miraculously great slasher film under the wing of filmmaker Joe D'Amato with StageFright, longtime Italian actor and assistant director Michele Soavi was being hailed as the great young hope of Italian horror cinema. That turned out to be true for a little while, at least until the industry caved in, with Soavi embarking on a pair of projects for producer Dario Argento, The Church and The Sect (followed by the unrelated masterpiece, Dellamorte Dellamore). Perhaps the most ambitious and ornate genre film of its era, The Church started life as the third entry in the Argento-produced Demons series, eventually morphing into its own strange, poetic beast.
In medieval Germany, an army of Templar knights invades a village on horseback and slaughters all of the residents, accusing them of witchcraft (which appears to be true). The bodies are all tossed into a gigantic pit in the ground, which is then covered over and later used as the foundation for an enormous urban cathedral. In the present day, new librarian Evan (Body Puzzle's Arana) arrives for duty to work alongside art student Lisa (StageFright's Cupisti), who is restoring the church's frescoes. Among the other characters on the premises are Father Gus (Quarshie), a cranky Bishop (Chaliapin), and church warden's daughter Lotte (a very young Asia Argento), all of whom become entangled in a supernatural mystery when Evan accidentally opens a hidden subterranean portal to the demonic forces churning beneath the building. Soon an afternoon visit by a fashion shoot crew and a horde of students on a field trip turns into a nightmare of irrational satanic shenanigans as the secrets of the church threaten to consume them all.
Though it has no direct connection to the Demons series, you can still sense its origins in its piecemeal construction hopping back and forth between various characters, not to mention its almost complete disregard for story logic. (On a basic level, it's never really established what the source of the story's evil actually is or what it wants to achieve.) Fortunately that barely matters thanks to Soavi's astonishing visual sense (this features some of the most breathtaking sweeping camera work you'll ever see), his deep respect for the genre (with nods to everything from Rosemary's Baby to The Keep to The Name of the Rose to The Treasure of Abbot Thomas), and a knockout soundtrack primarily consisting of new compositions by Keith Emerson and one of the many iterations of Goblin. Genre fans will also get a kick out of a supporting priest role played by Italian horror whipping boy Giovanni Lombardo Radice (a.k.a. "John Morghen"), who had a memorable bit in Soavi's The Sect as well, and a striking turn by former Argento girlfriend Antonella Vitale (also in Opera) as a fashion model wearing a very ill-advised gown.
Despite its high pedigree, The Church bypassed standard North American theaters entirely and went to VHS from South Gate (who also handled Opera) in simultaneous R-rated and unrated editions. Despite its high body count, this isn't a particularly graphic film so the differences between the two were very minimal. (Contrary to a typo on all of the VHS boxes, there was never a version running 110 minutes.) In 2002, Anchor Bay released a DVD of the film in its standard English-language version (some actors were later looped as per usual practice, but English is the primary language here) with a Dolby Digital 2.0stereo track, the theatrical trailer, and a pretty good 1.85:1transfer. That same disc was ported over with a simple logo switch for a Blue Underground reissue in 2007.
That brings us to the film's history on Blu-ray, which started with an okay Japanese Blu-ray from Happinet in early 2016 matted to 1.78:1 and featuring rather flat black levels. Then came a U.K. release from Shameless in separate Blu-ray and DVD editions, but this is a film you need to see with the highest clarity possible. Interestingly, a preface notes that the film has been restored to its original color palette, which raises some interesting questions about how it differs from past releases as it's quite a bit more yellow and flat than any other release. The framing has also been presented at a more spacious 1.66:1 (or as the reversible packaging amusingly calls it, "1.666:1"), which makes the compositions feel less cramped and claustrophobic (though it was obviously framed to be projected at adjustable aspect ratios). Audio is presented in LPCM stereo English and Italian mono tracks with optional (yellow) English subtitles directly translated from the Italian dialogue. The English track is obviously the way to go if you want to hear as many of the original actors' voices as possible, but the Italian version has its pluses as well included a more somber and eloquent tone (especially in the scenes with all those kids, which are pretty painful in the English version). The main extra here is an engaging new interview with Soavi (25m33s), speaking in English about how the film came about after working with Terry Gilliam on The Adventures of Baron Munchausen and how he dealt with what he felt were significant issues with the story even after it had finished shooting (including coming up with a new ending after principal photography had finished). He also chats quite a bit about his working relationship with Argento including the documentary Dario Argento's World of Horror and how he learned to follow Hitchcock's advice about shooting murder scenes like love scenes (and vice versa). Also included are bonus promos for The Sect, Dellamorte Dellamore (as The Cemetery Man), and Four Flies on Grey Velvet.
In March of 2018, The Church made its U.S. Blu-ray debut from Scorpion Releasing via Doppelganger with a standard one-disc retail edition, featuring a presentation from what may be a scan of the same core film source with the English credits here instead of Italian. It also looks a couple of notches darker and richer with significantly more saturated colors (the reds are intense!), so fans should be very pleased. (Frame grabs in the body of this review are from the Scorpion; comparison ones can be seen below.) The DTS-HD MA English 2.0 audio also sounds very good considering the limitations of the original mediocre mix. This single-disc release does come with a different Soavi interview (19m48s), about how he grew up into a film buff, hooked up with Argento as a producer and developed this from the ashes of the abandoned third Demons film, and had to assemble the soundtrack piecemeal since Keith Emerson lived in London at the time. A new interview with Asia Argento (8m26s), "Lotte," features the actress and director recalling one of her earliest roles shooting in a memorable Budapest church and having a lot of fun on the set as a kid ("lots of blood, masks, special effects... it was amazing"). The theatrical trailer is also included along with bonus ones for The Sect, Sleepless, Opera, The Card Player, and Etoile.
Later the same year, Scorpion issued a double-disc special edition for the specialty market (sold via Ronin Flix and Diabolik), featuring the same excellent transfer (looking identical down to the pixel) but this time with the option to also watch the film in Italian DTS-HD MA mono with properly translated English subtitles. The film also contains an audio commentary that can't be evaluated here as it was moderated by this writer with Cupisti, but hopefully her memories of making the film and working extensively with Soavi will prove informative. Both the Soavi and Asia Argento interviews from the earlier Scorpion disc are present on the first disc along with "Alchemical Possession" (12m42s), an interview with Dario Argento about his collaborations with Soavi starting with Tenebrae (where they bonded over bands like The Cramps!) and continuing through this film and The Sect, with a sad bit about the late Keith Emerson as well. The second Blu-ray consists entirely of interview featurettes, starting off with an entertaining and candid one with Arana (26m21s) about his segue into Italian films from doing avant garde theater, Argento's presence on the set, and his artistic rapport with Soavi as well as his fellow actors. An interview with Cupisti (24m43s) covers her career and this film from a more general standpoint including her current documentarian career, her fondness for the glory days of Italian genre filmmaking, her admiration for Arana's technique, and her affection for Radice. Speaking of whom, Radice turns up next for a discussion (14m27s) about his friendship with Soavi (going all the way back to acting together in City of the Living Dead), his issues with this film's story, and the unforgettable Chaliapin. Of course it wouldn't be an Italian genre release without an interview with set designer Massimo Geleng (20m46s) -- did this guy work on everything? -- in which he fondly recalls this film as the start of an ongoing string of Argento assignments as well as a reunion with Soavi after their Fulci film together, with special praise for Sergio Stivaletti's surreal effects. "Demons 3" (13m18s) features screenwriter (or "screnswriter" according to the menu) Franco Ferrini explaining how the film evolved from that Demons sequel into an M.R. James-inspired slice of antiquarian Gothic horror, while "Holy Ground' (10m2s) with makeup artist Franco Casagni recalling how a gig on Opera led to the challenging work on this film and one of several productive assignments with Arana. The limited edition comes with a slipcover and a folded mini-poster, both featuring a new cover design by Wes Benscoter.
In 2023, Severin Films bowed the film on 4K UHD as part of a three-disc set also containing a new Blu-ray edition and a soundtrack CD (plus a webstore exclusive slipcover and a booklet with an essay by Claire Donner). The UHD features the main feature with DTS-HD MA English 2.0 stereo and Italian 2.0 mono options with optional English subtitles, as well as a shockingly robust 5.1 English track that's easily the clearest and most energetic this film has sounded to date. The film is matted here at 1.85:1, which works as well as the other framing options out there, and looks excellent here with the most vivid and convincing color timing to date. The UHD also features the trailer, which is present on the Blu-ray along with a huge batch of featurettes both old and new. Ported over from the Scorpion release but with new credits are "The Mystery of the Cathedrals" (19m46s) with Soavi, "Alchemical Possession" (12m41s) with Dario Argento, "Lotte" (8m36s) with Asia Argento, "Father Giovanni" (14m14s) with Radice, "Holy Ground" (9m46s) with Casagni, "Building the Church" (20m46s) with Geleng, and "The Eleventh Commandment" (13m18s), a redo of the Franco Ferrini interview with much better optional English subtitles. The six new featurettes begin with "The Ghostwriter" (18m36s) with co-screenwriter Dardano Sacchetti talking about the project's evolution during and post-Lamberto Bava as well as the process of getting horror films off the ground by that rockier point in the industry. Perhaps the most valuable addition here is "Here Comes the Bride" (10m56s) with Antonella Vitale finally going in front of the camera, warmly recalling how her two big effects sequences were executed involving the gigantic wedding dress and, later on, lots of pumps and latex appliances on her face. "A Demon Named Evan" (25m37s) is a new, different interview with Tomas Arana, going over his fondness for the film and the crazier stories he's shared (especially involving Chaliapin). Effects legend Sergio Stivaletti comes next in "Monsters and Demons" (19m41s) covering the menagerie of creatures he had to make for the film and the artistic inspirations Soavi pointed to from fantasy paintings and medieval artwork that he wanted to incorporate. Then in "The Right-Hand Man" (16m50s), assistant director Claudio Lattanzi recalls the daunting nature of the production in Hamburg and Budapest with lots of challenges involving the many actors, scenes, and intricate visual tricks needed to pull it off. Finally Profondo Argento author Alan Jones gives a short summation of the film's genesis and evolution in "Return To The Land Of The Demons" (5m59s), praising the end result while alluding to a few gossipy bits along the way.
Severin Films (UHD)
Scorpion (US Blu-ray)
Shameless (UK Blu-ray)
Updated review on November 23, 2023