Thursday, August 28, 2014

La Setta (1991)

“La Setta” (1991, aka “The Sect”, aka “Demons IV: The Sect” aka “The Devil's Daughter", directed by Michele Soavi, screenplay by Dario Argento, Giovanni Romoli, and Michele Soavi.)

     If you’re only ever going to watch one Michele Soavi movie it should be "Dellamorte Dellamore"/"Cemetery Man" (1994). “The Sect” is not in the same league. It’s good but not great. It is stylish and has a lot of positive qualities that help balance its flaws. If you're in the mood for a visually pleasing, slow-burn supernatural horror-thriller and you don’t need it to make an awful lot of sense, this ought to do the job. There’s creative camera work, vivid use of colors, some cool sets, good special effects, and plenty of weird atmosphere. The story is the weakest part. It’s more than a little a bit convoluted, the ending is nothing special, and it runs too long (about 109 minutes in the version I saw, 125 minutes in the Italian version).

     This is yet another one of those movies that was released under the "Demons" banner in some markets, but is in no way an actual sequel to the "Dèmoni" films. All of that shouldn't stop you from giving it a try, though, especially if you've enjoyed any of Michele Soavi's other directorial work. "La Chiesa"/"The Church" (1989) , the third "Demons" movie, is Soavi's actual contribution to the series… that of course, and his role as a silent, metal-masked villain in the first "Demons" (1985).  Unlike those films, "La Setta"/"The Sect" isn't a monster movie, it's a Satanic cult story, an Italian take on the Beelzebaby subgenre.

Beezlebaby incubator wombs sold separately 

     Performances range from adequate to excellent. Kelly Curtis from “Trading Places” (1983) plays the main character. The consistently superb Herbert Lom plays the central villain, and he definitely brings the creepy. Lom is one of the few actors I've ever watched who stole scenes out from under Peter Sellers (in the "Pink Panther" series)! Horror veteran John Morghen plays a character named Martin Romero, a little reference to George Romero and his film "Martin" (1976).

Mmm.... Marzipan barrel 

     There's a very good, atmospheric musical score by composer Pino Donaggio. He composed music for a number of Brian DePalma's best films, including "Carrie" (1976) and "Body Double" (1984). He also scored Dario Argento's "Trauma" (1993), Joe Dante's "Piranha" (1978) and "The Howling" (1981), as well as a ton of other movies, and he is still working his magic in 2014. Also worth noting for music nerds, he wrote the song "You Don't Have to Say You Love Me" ("Io Che Non Vivo") which was performed by Elvis Presley, among others.

     There's a lot more talent packed into this movie than you might expect.

     It’s California, 1970, and there’s a horrifying evil threatening the land… hippies! This fiendish bunch of breast-painting, dope-smoking, clock-smashing, guitar-playing layabouts threaten civilization with their brand of patchouli-scented tie-dyed fun. Guitar-guy is playing along with America’s “Horse With No Name”. This is absolutely the easiest guitar song in the world and can still be played even after you've had eight fingers amputated and up to 70% of your brain scooped out. True fact. It seems worth pointing out, given the sorts of things that are about to happen to guitar-guy.

Damon otherwise known as Marlie Chanson

     A blurry prophet-from-the-desert figure (Tomas Arana) comes marching out of the heat. His name is Damon. They all sit around at dinner misquoting “Sympathy for the Devil” at each other and talking about how, like, profound the Rolling Stones are, man. It's so cosmic when Jagger says that part where he says, you know, what's nurturing you is the puzzle of my game, man. Hey, does anyone have some carob chips or some of those macrobiotic brown rice crackers? I've really got the munchies, brother.

Fucking Italians!

     Later that night Damon brutally murders the hippies just as any rational, decent human being would be morally obligated to do. The way things are presented it seems at first like they might all be having wild sex. That moment of ambiguity highlights the way horror movies conflate sex and death while making a bit of a dark inside joke about it, as well. The whole peacenik camp, children included, has been sacrificed to Satan. Damon has a posse, it turns out, and they’re something like a cross between the Manson family and the Hell’s Angels, a “faceless army” of biker-cultists willing to kill at his word. They have connections to a powerful Satanic hierarchy from "the old country,” and the higher-ups have a mysterious long-term master plan.

Official Spielberg Temple of Doom torn out heart Tchotchkes 

     The story shifts to Frankfurt, Germany, in 1991. A family man (John Morghen) stalks a woman to her home to assassinate her for betraying the cult. A pickpocket on the subway discovers the Satanic killer has a human heart in his pocket, wrapped in the victims golden cross bracelet.  When the cops cuff him he jerks one of their guns into his mouth and forces the trigger down… he won’t be a witness! I wonder if Satanist martyrs get special perks in Hell, like a bowl of ice cream once a century or something?

     The story shifts focus yet again and we finally meet the main character, Miriam (Kelly Curtis). She nearly hits a sickly old man with her car, and lets him stay at her house for the night. The old man, Moebius (Herbert Lom), has some kind of medical condition that requires him to drip a red liquid into his eyes from time to time. He soon rewards Miriam's compassion and generosity by taking a big crawly insect from a box he carries and letting it wiggle up her nose while she sleeps.

Bunny Hugglewugs

     Miriam has a nightmare while the bug is, presumably, burrowing into her brain. This sequence is short but pretty impressive. It did evoke the feeling of a dream, with its irrational form and the unpredictable way distance, perspective, and tone shifted. In the dream Miriam is in a field of bright poppies. She hears the cries of a baby and follows Rabbit into a forest full of wind chimes, to a naked, partially unseen person tied to a tree. Miriam struggles with the ropes and even tries to chew the captive free. She collapses on her back after she uses all her strength to pull apart one of the knots. Her feet are impossibly far away from her across the grass, and the unknotted ropes stretch away to the tree, now far off in the distance. Something travels up the length of her dress. A brutal-beaked bird bursts from her bodice (say that ten times fast). The bird rips wounds into her throat and she wakes up to find things have gone topsy-turvy in the real world as well.

Check out my impression of Brion James in Blue Sunshine!

     The old man has trashed the place and collapsed. The phones are down, so Miriam drives away to a neighbor who is also a doctor to get help. As soon as she is gone the old man stands up and carries his brown-wrapped package down to the basement. He opens a secret passage to a strange basement chapel, with a big spiral window and reveals a secret well leading down to a water-filled tunnel. He sets the box of bugs on fire and throws it in, then pulls the cover back into place. Miriam’s pet rabbit (named Rabbit) watches the whole thing. Moebius collapses again and tries to takes his medicine. Rabbit hated him from the start, and knocks the medicine down into well then cavorts victoriously atop his corpse. Just before he dies, Moebius pulls a handkerchief over his face like a shroud. Miriam and the doctor, Frank (Michel Addate), return and discover the passage opened by Moebius and follow it to the chapel, where they find the dead body. The authorities take the cadaver away but Moebius isn't finished spreading mayhem, not by a long shot.

Argento's homage to Monty Python

     Something is brewing in the water under the house, and it's in the pipes. I really like the short sequence where the camera travels from the well in the basement through the pipe system up to the house. Blue slime leaks from the kitchen plumbing. Miriam drinks some of the water, and there are traces of slime inside her glass. An Asian woman breaks in and tries to steal the burial shroud that Moebius had over his face. The thief is caught in the act but escapes.

Regular basketball is for pussies

     Rabbit is watching TV, and changing channels with his little paws. Demonic possession has never been so dang cute! Even the sweet-natured pooch in "Devil Dog: Hound of Hell" wasn't this adorable. Michele Soavi appears briefly as a magician on the TV while Rabbit is channel-surfing. A news story reveals that Moebius Kelly was an expert on Satanism who disappeared. Rabbit spends most of his time lurking menacingly.  Honestly, I'm not quite sure what's going on with Rabbit… he starts acting unnatural pretty quickly, but it's not clear which side he's on, exactly. He kills villain Moebius but he also attacks Miriam's allies. Still, it's pretty impressive that they managed to make Rabbit seem even a little bit sinister.

Don't clean your tub with a Toilet Duck 

     Miriam is a teacher, and a girl in her class draws the insect that Moebius put up Miriam’s nose. The girl later needs a ride home and as a result Miriam meets the girl’s mother. The mother studies an insect that has been extinct for 10,000 years which would lay eggs inside a woman’s brain, and the babies would eat the brain for nourishment. This is not sounding good for poor Miriam. It’s the same bug which we know is living inside her skull, and she swoons and passes out at the sight of it.

One of the Real Housewives needs to get back to the Plastic Surgery operating table

     Miriam’s friend Kathryn (Mariangela Giordano) stops by and finds the handkerchief left by Moebius, miraculously imprinted with his face like an an anti-Shroud-of-Turin. The shroud clings to her and tries to suffocated her, but she is rescued by Cheryl. This could have been really corny but the death shroud attacks are very well-done and creepy. Kathryn flees the house in a rush. She then picks up a random trucker, and we can see that she brought along a blade. His friends hear some strange noises and run to the scene, and unexpectedly, the trucker is stabbing Kathryn to death with her own kitchen knife. He’s horrified when he realizes what he’s done. For once, the Devil really did make him do it.

Sissy Spacek in the Italian version of The Shining

     Miriam’s goldfish are dead, eaten from the inside by the blue worms in the tap water. Miriam responds to this discovery by taking a long bath, soaking in the murky, wormy, fish-killing water. Yikes. Something is definitely not right with her. Soon she gets an impossible phone message from the dead Moebius. He says that he left his diary at her house. This bizarre message is followed up with a call that Kathryn is in the hospital dying from her injuries. Later the corpse gets up and attacks her, blames her for the death, and then cuts its own throat shouting “I’d die for you Miriam!”

Help! I forgot how to swim

     She goes down to the morgue with her doctor friend, Frank, for reasons that I was never quite clear on. Frank finds an “unknown” sealed metal coffin there and opens it… with a can opener! Ha! It shoots corpse-juice in his face at first and it’s a pretty gross scene. Inside is a soup of fluids with body parts floating in it.  The old man’s corpse has disappeared, I guess?

I've fallen down, someone call me a cab so I can get to the set of the latest Hellraiser sequel

     Back home the phone message and the shroud are also gone. Frank gives her a sleeping pill and while she snoozes he finds the diary of Moebius. The bunny has its eyes on him, and Frank doesn’t notice that there are blue worms wriggling in Miriam’s ears. Frank is busy examining the weird pipes running through the house, and following a diagram in the diary he makes his way to the weird satanic chapel with the shaft and the spiral window. The diary falls into the shaft and he climbs down after it. The death shroud surfaces in the water and seems to look at Frank like a face. He hears voices and follows a side tunnel the exits into the outdoors in a strange, rather pretty wetland.

     Damon the biker-cult leader, now much older, turns up again. He’s performing some kind of ritual along with a bunch of other cultists gathered around a tree under the full moon. Damon uses giant hooks to pierce their sacrificial victim all around her face. The cultists reflect moonlight on her with mirrors and call out to Shub-Niggurath, the black goat with a thousand young, a reference to one of the unspeakable alien gods of HP Lovecraft’s horror fiction. I guess this is sort of legit. Anton LaVey, founder of the Church of Satan and showman of PT Barnum proportions, included two “official” ceremonies in his 1972 book “The Satanic Rituals” which call on the creatures invented by Lovecraft. If you didn’t understand that LaVey was a prankster before… well, now you know. Occultism is a wacky business.

OK who invoked me, I was about to retire to my chamber with some chamomile tea and a savory biscuit 

      To demonstrate just how zany black magic can be, Damon tears the victims face off with the hooks and places the skin onto the dead body of the old man. Moebius instantly sits up and points directly to Frank’s hiding place. Frank flees and climbs back up the shaft to the house. At the top the bunny attacks him and sends him back into the water. The death shroud surfaces and wraps around his face. I know a bunny and a hanky don’t sound very threatening, but this movie manages to make the scene work. Even so, you can't help but giggle when you think about it. Death by bunny-bite, falling down an open manhole, and choking on a handkerchief… what an embarrassing way to die.

Rip Taylor got drunk on Night train again 

     Frank shows up at Miriam’s front door acting really weird, not dead after all. He has a kitchen knife and he’s going to “save her” from her “destiny”. She locks him out, so he upgrades to a pickaxe and starts hacking down the door Jack Torrance style. She gets to her car and drives away, but Frank leaps on board and causes a wreck. Later Damon and his toughs find Frank, who dies in a car explosion.
Oh Shit, did I forget to set my DVR for Masterchef again?

     Miriam stumbles back home, where the resurrected Moebius is waiting for her.  He and his cohorts inject something into her nose and she wakes up, still drugged, in the Satanic chapel in the basement. A giant heron-like bird flies up out of the well, and she falls backward into a nest of ropes. The shadow of the bird can be seen changing into a man, who starts having sex with her, but when she opens her eyes it is the bird from her dream pecking at her throat.

Dar, is that you calling me, Oops I flew into the wrong movie again!

     Afterward, the Satanists salve the gaping wound in her neck. The cultists drop a whole lot of heavy jive on Miriam all at once: Darth Moebius is her father; Every detail of her life from the beginning has been arranged by the cult; Her basement contains a doorway to Hell; And she is going to be Satan’s baby-mama. Then they lower her into the water of the Hell-gate. There are women down in the water with her, midwives for the Antichrist. As an eclipse of the moon occurs, down in the water she gives birth to something. It is born “in the caul”, with the amniotic sac still intact (a traditional folkloric omen that a child will have spiritual powers).

Yippie, Now I've got the last hummel figurine for my collection

     Moebius offers her the chance to raise the child, but when the right moment arrives, Miriam shoves one of the Satanists down the shaft to bounce off the walls and die. Then she goes grabs the baby and runs. The bikers chase her to the site of the burning car where Frank died, and one of the bikers is set aflame. Miriam flings herself and the baby into the fire, and Moebius follows. They wrestle in the flames and end up resembling a crispy charcoal briquette. Impossibly, the firefighters discover a live and naked Miriam inside the charcoal. She believes the child protected her from the flames because he loved her. Sure, I guess. Miriam sees a bird of prey flying by, different from the bird which attacked and raped her… perhaps the spirit of her child? I never did figure out what the rabbit and bird motifs throughout the movie signified exactly, but oh well.


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