Color, 1991, 117m.
Directed by Michele Soavi
Starring Kelly Curtis, Herbert Lom, Mariangela Giordano, Michel Adatte, Carla Cassola, Giovanni Lombardo Radice, Tomas Arana, Donald O'Brien
Shameless Screen Entertainment (Blu-ray & DVD) (UK RB/R2 HD/PAL), Happinet (Blu-ray & DVD) (Japan RA/R1 HD/NTSC), Cecchi Gori (DVD) (Italy R2 PAL) / WS (1.78:1) (16:9)
Color, 1991, 117m.
The horror career of director Michele Soavi burned briefly but brightly near the end of the Italian era, with four highly impressive and imaginative films helmed by the young filmmaker between 1987 and 1994. The Sect was the third film in that series, following Stage Fright and The Church with the sublime Dellamorte Dellamore still to come. Perhaps the most difficult film to appreciate, this one never seems to pop up as anyone's favorite out of those four but does come packed with plenty of hallucinatory, Jodorowskian charms and a surreal atmosphere that's tough to shake. It also benefits tremendously from repeated viewings, which allow its seemingly irrational structure to flow more freely without any expectations of a traditional horror film.
Kelly Curtis, sister of Jamie Lee, stars as Miriam, an American schoolteacher relocated to Germany in an area plagued by a satanic cult that murders and tears out the hearts of anyone who betrays it. (A Manson-inspired prologue set in "South California, 1970" establishes that they're a pretty global organization.) One afternoon Miriam seems to accidentally hit an elderly pedestrian, Moebius (Lom), standing in the middle of the road; alarmed; she takes him back to her house to recuperate, only for him to secretly drug her with some dark fluid from a eye dropper and then secrete a hallucinogenic insect in her nostril. Clutching a mysterious package and clearly targeting Miriam for a sinister plan, Moebius triggers an uncanny string of events in Miriam's life involving nightmares, a dark well filled with mystical water, her magic pet rabbit, and a diabolical cult leader, Damon (The Church's Arana).
Featuring a fascinatingly strange music score by the great Pino Donaggio and striking cinematography by Raffaele Mertes (Trauma), this definitely isn't the film to start with if you're new to Italian horror. However, more seasoned viewers should be better able to appreciate its odd rhythms and crazed flights of fancy, with Soavi's tendency to dive into pure fantasy well in evidence here. The influence of past horror films can certainly be sensed here, most obviously Rosemary's Baby (both with the eventual direction of the plot and Curtis's wide-eyed, fragile performance), but the story (concocted by Soavi, producer Dario Argento, and Giovanni Romoli) is definitely its own animal with a number of wild, unpredictable turns all the way to the end, which goes in a very different direction than the usual downbeat satanic horror tales.
The Sect received heavy fanzine promotion before and during its release in Italy, but the theatrical demand for these titles has disappeared almost entirely by the time it hit the U.S. from Republic Pictures on VHS and laserdisc after a tiny handful of theatrical screenings under the drab title of The Devil's Daughter, sporting artwork of Curtis cradling a giant snake. A mildly letterboxed Japanese VHS release was better than the cropped, muddy-looking Republic release, but even that didn't really do justice to the film's delicate visuals. In 2002, the film made its DVD debut from Italian label Cecci Gori, but it turned out to be a disappointment as well with a truly ugly, harsh transfer that suffered from grimy black levels, a processed texture over the image, significant image loss on all four sides, and some truly wacky color timing with overcranked orange levels that resulted in sickly tangerine skin tones. At least that release includes the Italian theatrical trailers for this film and The Church. An interlaced 2016 Japanese Blu-ray upgrade didn't exactly set the world on fire either, though it did feature a better rendition than what we'd had before.
The best of the lot by far is the UK Blu-ray release from Shameless, with a simultaneous DVD edition sporting completely different cover art. (A U.S. release from Code Red is slated for sometime in 2017, though no details about the presentation or extras have been announced.) The transfer features a new 2K scan from the original negative, featuring the English-language opening and closing titles (including that wince-worthy "and whit" at the end). The film is easily the most visually peculiar of the Soavi cycle with a soft, hazy, vaguely druggy sheen to it that's proven very challenging to transfer to the small screen before. This one looks much more natural and visually pleasing with that troublesome orange toned way down; basically it looks about as good as you'd imagine for a 1991 Italian production and makes for a significant upgrade, with the most visible image info visible on the sides as well. Contrary to the "PAL" designation on the back of the sleeve, the film is presented at its correct original film speed. The feature was intended to be released in English with Curtis and Lom providing their own voices (and everyone else dubbed, though the actors spoke English on the set), but that stereo mix is one of the weakest of its generation with a flat, muddy soundtrack seriously dampening the music and causing the dialogue to sound utterly bland and disaffected. That English track is here as an LPCM stereo option, but the big surprise here is the DTS-HD MA Italian 5.1 track (with optional yellow English subtitles). It's a vastly superior track in every possible way; the dialogue is more dynamic and beautifully recorded, sound effects are crisp and effective, and the music now has much more presence and range. It really gives the film some much-needed punch and makes for a far more enjoyable viewing option.
The main new extra here is "Beauty and Terror," a 29-minute interview with Soavi from the same session as his interview featured on The Church. He starts off chatting about working with Lucio Fulci and Joe D'Amato before shifting to a look at how this film came about, including anecdotes about the inspiration of catacombs at his own house and the process of casting Kelly Curtis. His story about wrangling that giant demon bird is fun, too, and he reveals which images and story points were contributed by Argento. Also included are bonus promos for The Church, Dellamorte Dellamore, and Four Flies on Grey Velvet.