Every decade has its ups and downs when it comes to cinema, no matter the genre. Horror fans love to loft on high the output of the ‘30s & ‘40s, the ‘70s & ‘80s, and the more recent decades. More often than not, however, the 1990s are labeled as the worst decade for the genre. Not only that, but ‘90s horror tends to be written off as a whole, beyond a handful of undisputed classics. The purpose of Exhumed & Exonerated: The ‘90s Horror Project, is to refute those accusations by highlighting numerous gems from the decade. Stone cold classics will be tackled in this column from time to time, but its main purpose will be to seek out lesser-known and/or less-loved titles that I think deserve more attention and respect from fans. Let the mayhem begin!
Directed by Michele Soavi
Screenplay by Dario Argento, Michele Soavi, and Gianni Romoli
Produced by Dario Argento
Starring Kelly Curtis, Herbert Lom, Michel Hans Adatte, Mariangela Giordano, Tomas Arana, Carla Cassola, Dario Casalini, Donald O’Brien, and Giovanni Lombardo Radice
Released on March 1, 1991
Aka La Setta, aka The Devil’s Daughter
Miriam Kreisel (Kelly Curtis) is a young schoolteacher who has been without a traditional family all her life. With few friends, her life in Frankfurt, Germany is a relatively quiet and uneventful one, until an accidental encounter with a mysterious man (Herbert Lom) sets her life on a dark path. Sinister elements have diabolical designs on Miriam and her future, ultimately forcing her to choose between a life of darkness or potentially-fatal salvation.
The Sect was Michele Soavi’s third feature as a second and his second collaboration with mentor Dario Argento. After working as an assistant director and/or 2nd unit director on films for Argento (Tenebre, Phenomena, Opera), Lamberto Bava (A Blade in the Dark, Demons), Joe D’Amato (Absurd, Endgame), and even Terry Gilliam (The Adventures of Baron Munchausen), Soavi finally began to truly strike out on his own as a filmmaker at the end of the ‘80s. Previously helming 1987’s fantastic slasher Stage Fright, he directed The Church for Argento in 1989. Two years later, the two re-teamed on this supernatural horror film.
Comprised of a trio of discarded outlines/scripts that Argento, Soavi, and Romoli all had lying around, The Sect is noticeably off-kilter as a result, even moreso than the usual Italian horror fare. As with all Italian horror, it is an acquired taste, but I’ve always found that it’s somewhat schizophrenic nature only adds to its charm. While Soavi is probably best known for making 1994’s Cemetery Man, both Stage Fright and The Church have a nice following within the horror community. The Sect, however, is often forgotten when his work within the genre is discussed.
I think this is a shame, although not altogether unsurprising. In addition to remaining relatively hard to come by (or at least easy to overlook) here in the United States, it’s also simply not as flashy and stylish a film as Soavi’s other three horror offerings. That is not to say that it lacks a sense of flair to its proceedings, but it is certainly the more subdued of the four in that regard. Both Stage Fright and The Church, while being excellent films in their own right, still contain a lot of Argento’s trademark style. The Sect is more of a middle ground between those films and what Soavi would eventually craft in Cemetery Man.
The Sect sees him slowly shedding a lot of his mentor’s visual influences, while still retaining a lot of Argento-esque story elements. If anything, Argento actual took a cue from him, ultimately employing the cinematographer that Soavi used here (Raffaele Mertes) on Trauma two years later. Both films share inventive camera movements that one expects of ‘80s Italian genre cinema, while also toning down the garish palettes that so permeated Euro-horror cinema, particularly in the ‘70s and ‘80s.
As you can tell from the brief synopsis at the start, The Sect is a bit of a Rosemary’s Baby riff. The Church also dealt with some Rosemary’s Baby-esque elements, so clearly the Polanski film is a touchstone for Soavi. Those aspects of the film work, but I find its other elements more interesting. The “birth of the antichrist” subgenre tropes are handled in a more esoteric way here, with a lot of Celtic and Pagan elements thrown into mix. There’s even a bit of Lovecraft tossed in for extra seasoning when it comes to a ritual performed late in the film, although don’t expect any tentacled beasties to appear. It’s not that kind of Lovecraftian element.
There actually is a bit of a phantasmagorical creature element at play, but nothing so fantastic as actual monsters. Instead, we have what one can only assume is Satan (or a similar surrogate demonic being) appear in the form of a large bird and engage in beastiality. Did I mention that we see his well-hung humanoid shadow first, before he takes on his babe-banging Beelzebird-form? Yeah, that’s a (big) thing that happens. There’s also a rabbit who is far more intelligent than any normal bunny. Not only does it seem incredibly aware of what is going on, but it can also expertly use a TV remote!
The film contains quite a bit of Alice in Wonderland-esque imagery in addition to its occult and esoteric elements. Practically every scene of the film has some sort of rabbit likeness or clock placed within the frame, as well as the occasional usage of red roses. Unfortunately for Miriam, it isn’t Wonderland she finds herself tumbling into as the film goes on, but Hell itself (in a manner of speaking).
As the tale unwinds, things become more and more dreamlike, eventually nearing the point where one isn’t entirely sure what is real and what is not. For instance, the house in which Miriam resides appears both small and massive at times. The outside looks rather large, but the main and second floors on the inside appear almost townhouse-sized. Then there’s the double-decker basement, which is revealed to both Miriam and the audience as the film goes on.
At its lowest floor is a well that goes down at least a hundred feet. It’s also some sort of gateway to Hell that is pumping strange blue goo into the house’s water pipes. This Hell Well, in addition to its deep reservoir, has a large pipe running away from it that spills into a small knee-deep pond beside the road near the house. Just through basic calculations, the house would have to almost be atop a large hill in order to account for the double-leveled basement and the additional hundred foot drop into the well, but from the outside, it appears to only be slightly above the road. Normally one might fault this as a continuity error on the part of the production, but it has to be intentional. Furthermore, it adds to the dreamlike elements and strengthens the sense of unease that permeates the picture.
Speaking of unease, there’s something that always felt off to me about the film’s opening in the past and I finally pinpointed what it was this time. The bulk of our tale is set in Frankfurt, Germany in 1991, but the opening of the movie is set in California in 1970. It opens with the Manson-esque murder spree at the start as Damon (Tomas Arana) sacrifices everyone in a small hippie commune (including the women and children) as the first of many such events to pave the way for their eventual Antichrist ritual. Nothing in this sequence is particularly disturbing as shot. In fact, it actually shows very little, letting the flame-lit aftermath speak for itself. So why has it always managed to creep me out?
Think about it for a moment. We’ve got a Rosemary’s Baby riff of a film here that opens with a Manson-style murder. Director Roman Polanski made Rosemary’s Baby in 1968. The following year, his pregnant wife, actress Sharon Tate, was stabbed to death by Charles Manson’s cult. This film’s prologue takes place a year later. For some reason, I had never managed to put two and two together until now.
The prologue itself came directly from Argento and there is no way that the above connection is not an intentional one on his part. The sheer tastelessness of such a narrative choice is a subject for a different day, but one cannot deny that it makes the opening sequence more even more powerful than it is as presented.
Moving on beyond, there’s still plenty of creepy imagery to go around. Everything involving a particular death shroud comes to mind. You’d think that a stained clothed couldn’t be effectively used as a dangerous object, but Soavi manages to make it work. There are also a few knife-wielding stalk-n-slash scenes that are quite effective, as well as a rather icky morgue-set sequence. All in all, it makes for an interesting experience, even if it isn’t overly scary as a whole.
I’ve rambled on for paragraph after paragraph and still haven’t brought up the actors themselves. I won’t go on for long about them, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t praise Herbert Lom’s work as the mysterious Moebius Kelly. It’s obvious from the get-go that something isn’t right about him, even beyond the fact that he’s played by genre luminary Herbert Lom (Mark of the Devil, A Shot in the Dark). Add in Mariangela Giordano (Burial Ground), the aforementioned Tomas Arana (The Hunt For Red October), and a nice Giovanni Lombardo Radice (City of the Living Dead) cameo and you’ve got yourself a nice collection of genre character actors. As for the lead, Kelly Curtis is a capable protagonist. She doesn’t throw herself into the role quite like her sister’s (Jamie Lee) scream queen roles, but she’s good.
The Sect is an oft-beat Italian horror offering from the early ‘90s that deals with the subjects such as the occult, ritualistic murder, Satanic panic, motherhood, and paganism. It’s not the flashiest film of its type, but it remains one that lingers in my mind for days after I watch it. I hope that someday it can see a proper home video release in America, as it’s long overdue for a reevaluation. It’s not for everyone, but if your tastes lean in this direction, it might just be for you.
Up Next: The Addams Family (1991)