Color, 1989, 102m.
Directed by Michele Soavi
Starring Hugh Quarshie, Tomas Arana, Barbara Cupisti, Feodor Chaliapin, Asia Argento, Antonella Vitale, Giovanni Lombardo Radice
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)
Color, 1989, 102m.
After pulling off a miraculously great slasher film under the wing of filmmaker Joe D'Amato with Stage Fright, 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 something more Gothic and poetic.
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 wedding 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 2.0 stereo track, the theatrical trailer, and a pretty good 1.85:1 transfer. 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. Fortunately you can ignore that release in favor of the UK 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. You won't notice a radical difference overall, but the muddy brown tone from the past has been reduced quite a bit and a few scenes play out quite differently. For example, the opening sequence now looks like it takes place more at dusk than before, and Arana's heart-ripping hallucination now features vibrant shades of blue and red that were almost entirely suppressed before. 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). The fairly generous bit rate tends to hover around the 30Mbps range, which is more than enough to handle the many dark, smoky scenes throughout the film.
Audio is presented in LPCM stereo English and Italian 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 25-minute interview with Soavi, 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.