Color, 1991, 116 mins. 46 secs.
Directed by Michele Soavi
Starring Kelly Curtis, Herbert Lom, Mariangela Giordano, Michel Adatte, Carla Cassola, Giovanni Lombardo Radice, Tomas Arana, Donald O'Brien
Severin Films (UHD & Blu-ray) (US R0/RA 4K/HD), Scorpion Releasing / Doppelganger Releasing (Blu-ray and DVD) (US RA/R1 HD), 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), Koch Media (Blu-ray & DVD) (Germany RB/R2 HD/PAL) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9)
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, Jodorowsky-esque 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.
A U.K. Blu-ray release from Shameless came around in 2017, with a simultaneous DVD edition sporting completely different cover art. 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 better than the earlier DVD with that troublesome orange toned way down, and with visible image info visible on the sides as well. However, blacks are very flat and gray, taking quite a bit of punch out of the imagery, and detail is often quite soft (with some horizontal squashing evident). 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 mix is one of the weakest of its generation with a flat soundtrack seriously dampening the music and causing the dialogue to sound utterly bland and disaffected. That English track is here as an LPCM mono option, but the big plus here is the DTS-HD MA Italian "5.1" track (with optional yellow English subtitles). It's actually still mono but 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.
A pricier European option is the German release, as a 2016 deluxe mediabook edition or a 2018 standard Blu-ray / DVD set, which features a significantly stronger transfer with deep blacks and more convincing detail. Audio options are DTS-HD MA German and Italian mono with some stereo at the end grafted off the soundtrack CD, or English mono with optional German subtitles, while the main disc also has a German credit sequence and Italian and German trailers. The mediabook released in 2016 also has a bonus DVD featuring a bevy of cast and crew interviews with German or Italian options but no English ones; more on that below.
In 2018, Scorpion Releasing issued the film on Blu-ray and DVD via distributor Doppelganger Releasing as a single-disc edition featuring what's touted as a fresh 2K scan with new color correction. It does look significantly superior to the U.K. disc and also nudges past the German one a bit since it features deeper blacks and a bit more organic-looking film grain; it's a very rich, impressive presentation with a nice sense of depth and vivid color schemes. This time the credits are in English, for the record, as opposed to the Italian ones on the German disc. The only audio option is the standard DTS-MA English mono track, which sounds a shade less drab and noise reduced here but has some audible degradation in the opening sequence and at what sounds like some reel change points. "Of Alchemy and Esotericism" (20m10s) is a newly edited Soavi interview (from the Freak-o-Rama session excerpted on the German disc) in which the filmmaker recounts the impact of his collaborations with Argento, his childhood background including his affinity for rabbits that informed the film, the meaning behind the heavy Germanic fairy tale feel of the film, and his admiration for Curtis's work ethic. A very funny, energetic new interview with Arana (29m21s) covers his smooth "shorthand" relationship on the set with Soavi, the trick of smoking pot on camera, and the lessons he learned from Lom. He also chats quite a bit about The Church and his two films with "fellow Aries" Lamberto Bava, too, including Body Puzzle. The Italian theatrical trailer is included along with bonus ones for Opera, The Church, and Sleepless, as well as an Arana Easter Egg if you look hard enough. A more elaborate two-disc edition, sold via Ronin Flix and Diabolik, adds the Italian track with optional translated English subtitles, an engaging and sometimes quite witty Troy Howarth audio commentary, and a new "Blood Brothers" Dario Argento interview (15m11s) to the preexisting Soavi and Arana featurettes on the first disc. Oddly, the English track suffers from major anomalies at least on some systems with prominent phasing issues and noise that can be very distracting, especially on headphones. Disc two is comprised of video interviews, essentially English-friendly options of the ones from the German release: "The Light at the End of the Pit" (27m52s) with cinematographer Raffaele Mertes; "Inside the Pit" (23m3s) with set designer Massimo Antonello Geleng; "Requiem for a Genre" (35m18s) with screenwriter Gianni Romoli; "The Dario Argento Experience" (12m44s) with composer Pino Donaggio; "The Tell-Tale Heart" (12m16s) with actor Giovanni Lombardo Radice; and "Miriam's Baby" (25m17s) with historian Fabrizio Spurio.
In 2023, Severin Films debuted The Sect on 4K UHD as part of a three-disc set also containing a Blu-ray and the soundtrack CD, with a webstore exclusive slipcover and an insert booklet with a Claire Donner essay. This time they finally got it right with a presentation that knocks it out of the park; the color here is especially impressive on the UHD with deeper, more nuanced blacks and much better detail. It really looks gorgeous. The DTS-HD MA 2.0 English and Italian tracks are both labeled as stereo on the menu screen but are really still mono as usual, with optional English SDH or English-translated subtitles. The UHD wisely devotes most of its 83GB of space to the feature itself with only the trailer as an extra; the trailer is also on the Blu-ray along with the Italian trailer and numerous featurettes, both archival and new. Carried over from the earlier U.S. Blu-ray special edition, albeit with revised credits and new titles, are several interviews: "Sympathy for the Devil" (20m14s) with Soavi, "(You're The) Devil In Disguise" (15m19s) with Dario Argento, "Catacumba" (35m22s) with Gianni Romoli, "In The Shaded Area" (27m57s) with Raffaele Mertes, "Oh Well" (23m6s), ha ha, with Antonello Geleng, "Four Times Argento" (12m44s) with Pino Donaggio, and "Owner of a Lonely Heart" (12m17s) with Giovanni Lombardo Radice. "Cult Of Personality" (20m9s) is a different, new interview with Tomas Arana about his creative shorthand with Soavi by this point and his approach to playing the Manson-like cult leader, while Sergio Stivaletti appears in "Total Eclipse" (12m51s) to cover his effects creations in the film including the face twisting and those crazy bird attack scenes. "The Birth of Evil" (25m20s) is a new, different appraisal from Fabrizio Spurio exploring the film's ties to other occult cinematic works and its place as a sort of twilight entry in the golden era of Italian horror. Then "Into The Dark Well" (5m22s) features Profondo Argento author Alan Jones talking about the evolution of the script between Argento and Soavi, including the spooky subterranean well in Soavi's house that proved to be a major impetus for the final act. He also shares his own memories of being on the set, plus his one and only interaction with Lom. Speaking of Soavi's house well, you get to see it up close in the fun "Catacomb in the Kitchen" (3m2s) with the filmmaker giving a tour to the Severin gang.
Severin Films (UHD)
Scorpion Releasing (Blu-ray)
Shameless Screen Entertainment (Blu-ray)
Koch Media (Blu-ray)
Updated review on November 23, 2023