Watching this movie, I felt as if I was getting glimpses of multiple alternate realities. One was a universe in which we didn’t generally regard the 1990s as a wasteland for the horror genre; another was one in which Michele Soavi became as major a Hollywood player as Peter Jackson. Watching The Sect, neither of these options seemed too implausible. The 1990s rarely comes up when discussing the great eras for horror cinema: it was the period when the trusted old hands like Carpenter, Romero, Hooper and for a time Craven hit dry spells, derivative straight-to-video bilge became the norm, and the few new directors who showed any promise seemed to hit the wall at double speed. And yet in the early 90s in particular, there were more than a couple of relative newbies who showed such promise: Clive Barker, Richard Stanley, and yes, Jackson and Soavi. We know how most of these stories turned out: Barker largely left film behind in favour of writing and painting, Stanley had his infamous meltdown on The Island of Doctor Moreau, and Jackson, to the astonishment of anyone who ever saw Bad Taste and/or Meet the Feebles, convinced some bigwigs to let him make a megabudget three-film adaptation of The Lord of the Rings, netting himself many millions and a bunch of Oscars in the process. Soavi, by contrast, remains a largely anonymous figure outside of Italian horror devotees, and since the mid-90s has largely worked in Italian TV; but watching The Sect, it’s not hard to envisage him reaching far greater heights.
The Sect was the Italian actor-turned-director’s third feature, bridging the gap between 1989’s The Church (which, to my regret, I’ve still yet to see) and surely his best-loved film, 1994’s Dellamorte Dellamore. After an opening scene allegedly in Southern California (though something tells me they didn’t actually go there to shoot it) in which a hippy commune unwisely allows a Manson type (Tomas Arana) into their midst and soon thereafter find themselves slaughtered, we then hop forward to Frankfurt in the present day (well, 1991). Here we meet Miriam (Kelly Curtis), a humble primary school teacher and spinster whose life takes a turn for the bizarre when she accidentally hits old man Moebius (Herbert Lom) with her car. Taking him back to her home rather than a hospital – don’t expect real world logic, this is a) a horror movie and b) Italian – Miriam helps the strange elderly gent back to health. But as things get weird, it becomes apparent their paths may not have crossed by accident, that sinister occult forces are at work all around Miriam, and that fate has some big surprises in store for her.
As for just what those surprises are; well, The Sect’s US title The Devil’s Daughter gives us a pretty big hint there, even if the film itself (co-written by Soavi with his mentor Dario Argento, and Gianni Romoli) seems anxious not to give too much away at first. In honesty, I did fear The Sect would try my patience at first, given that it’s a little shy of two hours in length and the bulk of the first hour plays the mystery card heavily, with no real sense of what’s going on, and no indication of how the dead hippies prologue relates to the central narrative. This is a problem I’ve often had with Italian horror, Argento’s films in particular; they place atmosphere centre stage, whilst narrative and character fall by the wayside, and while I understand this is key to their appeal for many viewers, it can prove a struggle for those of us who like our films to make sense at least a little bit on some level. (Side note: this was one of my key complaints of Ben Wheatley’s Kill List, which isn’t too far removed from The Sect in some respects.)
On paper, then, The Sect doesn’t seem too far removed from your average spaghetti schlock-horror. We’ve got novelty celebrity casting in Herbert Lom (Pink Panther) and Kelly Curtis (you guessed it, daughter of Janet and Tony, sister of Jamie), and we’ve got a nonsensical plot in which logic barely factors, with shades of older, better known genre entries, notably Rosemary’s Baby and The Wicker Man. And I daresay if Argento (who apparently conceived the story) had chosen to direct it himself, it might have felt like just another one of those, like a marginally less batshit cousin to Phenomena.
But with Soavi at the helm, we get something with an altogether different feel. It doesn’t quite reach the same heights of abstraction and black humour as Dellamorte Dellamore, but a similar sensibility is in evidence. Argento’s thumbprint is undeniable, but Soavi clearly isn’t content to imitate and brings a lot of new stuff to the table. There’s a greater kinetic energy to the camerawork, which brings to mind Raimi, Jackson and Rodriguez; an emphasis on insects and spiralling Gothic architecture which seems to predict Del Toro; and arguably an even greater abundance of “they’re-not-going-to-go-there/oh-my-god-they-went-there” moments than we’ll find from most movies Argento himself made in the 1990s. I don’t want to spoil anything for the uninitiated, but the eye-opening cover art (Shameless’s speciality) with a bloody great bird hovering ominously over our leading lady does hint at one of the most WTF moments in the movie, as does my chosen header image of a seemingly innocuous bunny rabbit…
It may be just a smidgen overlong for my tastes, with a plot that sometimes gets unnecessarily convoluted, but all in all The Sect is a spellbinding, hugely entertaining movie, which it pains me that I never saw before now; and I’m making it a personal priority to see Soavi’s earlier films Stagefright and The Church ASAP. Given that the director followed this up with Dellamorte Dellamore – which, lest we forget, no less a figure than Martin Scorcese declared the best movie of 1994 – it’s baffling that Soavi’s film career pretty much ground to a halt immediately thereafter. And once again, I visited one of those alternate universes whilst watching the disc’s sole extra*, an extended interview with Soavi, which closes with the director expressing deep regret for passing on Quentin Tarantino’s offer to direct From Dusk Till Dawn. As iconic as Robert Rodriguez’s work on that movie proved to be, just imagine what Soavi might have done with it – and what exciting new places it might have taken him to.
(*There’s also a trailer reel for Shameless’s other releases.)
The Sect is available now on Blu-ray and DVD from Shameless Screen Entertainment.