This week on TCM Underground: The Church (1989) and The Devil’s Bride (1968)

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We’re bringing back a couple of party favorites this week on TCM Underground – like Hell we are!

Soavi, Argento

Italian filmmaker Michele Soavi (above, left, being strangled by Dario Argento) has retained a remarkably loyal cult following over the past quarter century, especially given his relatively scant output of feature films. An heir to the Olivetti fortune, the Milan native was raised in affluence and pointed initially to a life as a fine artist – until the allure of cinema altered his career course. Starting out as an actor in Italian exploitation fare (he met a spectacularly gory demise in Lucio Fulci’s CITY OF THE LIVING DEAD [1980]), Soavi’s fair skin and (for Italy) blonde hair gave him an edge over the competition at auditions yet his passion was rooted on the other side of the camera. He forged crucial professional relationships with countrymen Argento and Aristide Massacessi (aka Joe D’Amato), assistant directing Massacessi’s monster-on-the-loose cheapie ABSURD (aka ANTHROPHAGUS II, 1981) and Argento’s giallo masterpiece TENEBRE (aka UNSANE, 1982). While Argento permitted Soavi to direct music videos to accompany the release of his follow-up film, PHENOMENA (aka CREEPERS, 1985), Massacessi produced Soavi’s feature film directorial debut, STAGEFRIGHT (aka AQUARIOUS, 1987), an Italianate slasher film set inside a legitimate theater.

Aquarius

STAGEFRIGHT was a box office disappointment in Italy but Soavi’s painterly attention to detail impressed both Argento and ex-Monty Python trouper Terry Gilliam, who hired the fledgling filmmaker to direct second unit on his sprawling, troubled epic fantasy THE ADVENTURES OF BARON MUNCHAUSEN (1988); the production quagmires on that film permitted the Soavi to take an even greater hand in crafting the end result than for which he had been contracted. Soavi brought the value of his lessons learned on the Gillian film and a lifelong passion for arcana and diablerie to his sophomore directorial effort, THE CHURCHA (LA CHIESA1989), produced by Argento. The project had originated with Argento and another of his mentees, Lamberto Bava (son of famed Italo-Gothic practitioner Mario Bava). Planned as the third leg of a trilogy of horror tales in which demonic spirits are released in public spaces, comprised at that point of the Argento-produced/Bava fils-directed DEMONS (DEMONI, 1985) – set in a cinema – and DEMONS 2: THE NIGHTMARE CONTINUES (DEMONI 2,  1986) – which moved the action and creme de ichor to a high rise apartment block – THE CHURCH concerned the freeing of diabolic entities imprisoned for centuries in the foundation of a Gothic cathedral.

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Though Lamberto Bava had been attached to complete the trilogy (and had already banged out a screenplay with veteran Italian scribe Dardano Sacchetti), the film’s backers balked at the choice; Bava’s preference for the quick money of television production got him branded as a TV director, necessitating a last minute change in personnel. Though he hated the Bava-Sacchetti script, Soavi agreed to adopt THE CHURCH provided he could rewrite the material. (Final credit is shared by Soavi, Argento, and DEMONS/DEMONS 2 contributor Franco Ferrini.) Argento consented and gave Soavi free rein, provided that shooting would begin on schedule in September 1988. With the cost of fabricating a Gothic cathedral from the ground up on an Italian soundstage being prohibitively expensive from the outset, Soavi and Argento searched far and wide for an existing location – only to find Argento’s reputation for ultra-violence had made him persona non grata among Western Europe’s clerical community. A suitable substitute was located in Budapest, while a ruined cathedral in Hamburg was tapped to stand in for the crumbled chiesa in the film’s final frames. With a budget of $3.5 million and a finely-tuned ability to squeeze a maximum of impact from a minimum investment, Soavi’s THE CHURCH proved to be not merely a return to the form of his earlier <i>Stagefright</i> but an invigorating, astonishing step forward.

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Structured like a 70s disaster film, THE CHURCH traps a disparate clutch of character types within its walls, allowing them an hour of free range before all hell breaks loose in the third act and the cast list is reduced from double to single digits. Despite the boldness of his vision (which feathers in the specter of Fulcanelli, the pseudonymous French alchemist/philosopher and possible occultist who put forth the idea that cathedrals are elaborate puzzle boxes containing ancient secrets – a notion that had curb appeal for the Third Reich), Soavi cannot resist studding THE CHURCH with literary and film references from English ghost story spinner M. R. James to such canonical genre titles as DON’T LOOK NOW  (1973), ROSEMARY’S BABY (1968), THE SHINING (1980), and ALTERED STATES (1980). (Even Indiana Jones rates a cheeky name-check.) Soavi’s cast is suitable eclectic. Though he assigned his girlfriend at the time, Barbara Cupisti, the plum role of a church restorationist who is among the first to sense something rotten in God’s house, he surrounded her with a handful of internationally familiar faces, among them HIGHLANDER‘s Hugh Quarshie, American expat Tomas Arana (fresh from playing Lazarus in Martin Scorsese’s THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST), John Richardson (nearly thirty years past his starring role in Mario Bava’s BLACK SUNDAY, here appearing in a cameo as the cathedral’s ill-fated architect), and 83 year-old Feodor Chaliapin, Jr., who had played an equally secretive friar in Jean-Jacques Annaud’s monastery-set murder mystery THE NAME OF THE ROSE (1986) and then popped up in an amusing bid as Cher’s doddering grandfather in Norman Jewison’s MOONSTRUCK. (Chaliapin’s genre bona fides go back even further; in the Val Lewton-produced THE SEVENTH VICTIM, he appears in a wordless bit as the would-be assassin stalking heroine Kim Hunter.) THE CHURCH also marks an early role for Asia Argento, whose father Dario would give her the lead in his 1993 American language giallo TRAUMA.

Cemetery-Man (1)

Soavi chased THE CHURCH with the even more gonzo THE SECT (LA SETTA, aka THE DEVIL’S DAUGHTER, 1991), a Satan-wants-your-baby spooker starring Kelly Curtis (Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh’s other kid) as an American school teacher living abroad who becomes the target of a Satanic cult led by Herbert Lom; the debt to ROSEMARY’S BABY is even greater but Soavi throws in a Charles Manson surrogate (Tomas Arana again) and a wealth of trippy and disturbing visuals. With his fourth film, DELLAMORTE DELLAMORE (aka CEMETERY MAN, 1994), Soavi scored his greatest success. This visually sumptuous (yet not infrequently gag-inducing) horror-comedy-romance about the rise of the undead and the lonely graveyard groundskeeper (Rupert Everett) tasked with returning them to their coffins is as excessive as any Soavi film and yet laced throughout with the lyricism and, yes, even beauty that has always been integral to his personal aesthetic. At a time when Soavi represented for many in the know not “just the brightest star on the Italian genre scene – he’s the only one” (quoth critic Alan Jones, in his review of the film in the British genre magazine Starburst), he was forced to withdraw from professional life to care for his chronically ill son. Resurfacing in 1999, Soavi has continued to work primarily in television, earning well-deserved praise for his police procedural UNO BIANCA (2001) and his 2002 religious biopic FRANCISCO, based on the life of St. Francis of Assisi. In 2013, he directed a two-part Italian miniseries based on the life of his socially conscious grandfather, Adriano Olivetti.

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THE DEVIL’S BRIDE is, as any Hammer fan worth his weight in Kensington Gore can tell you, the American release title for THE DEVIL RIDES OUT, Hammer’s adaptation of Dennis Wheatley’s novel of Satanism afoot in Great Britain between the World Wars. Directed by Terence Fisher, from a script by Richard Matheson, the film represents Hammer Film Productions at its zenith, its artistic apex, and it is cracking, intelligent genre filmmaking from start to finish. It’s also a somewhat atypical Hammer joint in that it is — Christopher Lee in a commanding star performance notwithstanding — largely absent the familiar faces (Michael Ripper, George Woodbridge, Duncan Lamont, George Pastel) with whom we associate the flinty independent studio… though long-time salaried stuntman Eddie Powell does turn up under the disconcerting horns of the demonic Goat of Mendes. Powell looked, in his civvies, like a regular bloke, like someone you might find wearing out a section of the bar at his local pub or waiting in line outside a betting shop, but that man could do amazing things with his eyes, as he had showed as the avenging revenant of THE MUMMY’S SHROUD (1967) and the Grand Inquisitor of LOST CONTINENT (1967); Powell later wore the monster suit in ALIEN (1979) for select scenes and was still doing stunts for such A-list actors as Kevin Costner and Sylvester Stallone right up to the time of his death in 2000.

Tune in on Saturday night starting at 11:15 pm PST/2:15 am EST.. or to the Devil with you. Literally!

6 Responses This week on TCM Underground: The Church (1989) and The Devil’s Bride (1968)
Posted By Ben Martin : January 21, 2016 1:41 am

That Goat of Mendes creeped me out big time when I first saw it. (I really wanted to say “that thing really got my goat” but I don’t think that old saying means what I think it means.) Good for you giving Eddie Powell a shout out. He deserves it. So you show a goat man from THE DEVILS BRIDE and an “owl man” from…? Is that chain-saw wielder in THE CHURCH? If so, count me in.

Posted By Jonathan Barnett : January 21, 2016 5:01 am

Oh yes! I’m gonna show these to the kids!

Posted By swac44 : January 21, 2016 4:40 pm

Another great double feature! I’ve seen both films, but I think the last time I caught The Church was on a rented laserdisc, so as you can see, not recently. Just rewatched Dellamorte Dellamore (which I was lucky enough to see in its limited theatrical release) a few months back, definitely time to revisit this bonkers occult thriller.

Posted By Cole : January 22, 2016 11:07 pm

I’d like to thank Tcm underground and late night pot smoking for getting me into watching Tcm regularly and appreciating classic movies of all kinds.

Posted By Chris Wuchte : June 2, 2016 7:16 pm

Looking forward to seeing The Church for the first time, and eager to see The Devi’s Bride again. It’s one of those Hammer films I only discovered a few years ago, and it’s become one of my favorites. Lots of creepy moments – the party where they realize everyone there is part of the cult has always stuck with me. And that’s early on. It just gets better from there.

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : June 2, 2016 7:24 pm

This has to be one of my favorite TCM Underground double features in recent memory. Love both movies but I’ve never seen them back to back. Must rectify that this weekend!

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