Evil demonic forces trap visitors in the bowels of an Italian cathedral in “The Church” (1989)

By on October 4, 2019

Each Friday this month we’ll be adding ten horror cult film titles (that’s forty total in October!) to our ever-growing selection on Night Flight Plus, and we’ll be highlighting a couple of the best of those each week here on the blog, starting with Horror Month: Gothic & Erotic Thrillers.

We’re diving deep into Hell’s dark depths to tell you about the very first of these, Michele Soavi‘s superb supernatural masterpiece The Church (La Chiesa, 1989), where visitors to a Gothic Italian cathedral become trapped by evil demonic forces released from a medieval crypt.

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We learn during the film’s prologue that — after a 16th Century village full of supposed satanists and witches were massacred by the Knights Templar in medieval Germany — a Gothic cathedral was built atop the site of their dead bodies to contain the evil below.

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In the present day, all hell breaks loose during a restoration of the church’s frescoes.

A young curious librarian “Evan” (Tomas Arana) meets an art student named “Lisa” (Barbara Cupisti of Stage Fright), who in turn introduces him to a surly “Bishop” (Feodor Chaliapin, Jr.) and a kindly “Father Gus” (Hugh Quarshie), who later appears to be one of the few people unaffected by those demonic forces released after Evan stupidly breaks the seal of the crypt in the subterranean catacombs below the church.

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This action coincides with certain automated mechanisms, built into the church’s defense systems by its architect, which make the cathedral’s doors to automatically shut and lock in order to keep the evil forces from escaping.

This happens one afternoon as a group of doomed visitors — including a photography crew and fashion model (played by Argento girlfriend Antonella Vitale, who’s also in Opera) — and a group of students on a field trip find themselves trapped inside the bowels of the church.

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The Church — virtually brimming with images of hooded monks, secret passages, arcane rituals, alchemical elements and the like — also features producer Dario Argento‘s 13-year old daughter Asia Argento in her third film appearance as “Lotte.”

The film — also released as Demons 3, Demons 3: The Church, Demon Cathedral, Cathedral of Demons, and In the Land of Demons — wasn’t theatrically distributed in the U.S.

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The Church went straight to VHS home video, and wasn’t released on DVD/Blu-ray until 2018 by Blue Underground, who promoted the film by asking “Can the blood of the innocent survive this unholy communion, or will the ultimate demonic evil be unleashed upon the world?”

Read more about The Church below.

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The Church began as the possible third installment in the Argento-produced Demons series, which had started with Italian filmmaker Lamberto Bava’s excellent 1985 splatter-fest Dèmoni.

Franco Ferrini and Dardano Sacchetti (Lucio Fulci‘s longtime creative partner) had originally come up with a story taking place aboard a plane.

After the plane was forced to an emergency landing near a volcano, the passengers found themselves in a weird hellish world where demonic forces allowed them no escape.

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Argento and Bava worked on several early drafts, but ultimately the downed plane setting was found to be too limiting.

It was then decided that a church — built atop some kind of sealed passage to hell — might work better, and indeed it did, but Bava had grown tired of the delays and by October ’88 had already abandoned the project to begin directing a series of Italian TV horror movies.

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Argento felt the concept didn’t need to be part of the Demons series, which then freed up everyone involved to creatively expand on the idea.

One of these participants early on was the film’s eventual director, Michele Soavi, fresh off the success of his film Deliria, which is better known to English-speaking audiences as Stage Fright.

Their screenplay — credited to Soavi, Argento and Ferrini — was also based loosely on an idea found in the 1904 short story “The Treasure of Abbot Thomas,” by British writer M.R. James.

Lamberto Bava’s brother Fabrizio — who wrote the medieval prologue — was among several contributing writers who weren’t credited onscreen.

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There were numerous other recent films which apparently also informed and influenced Argento and Soavi’s The Church, including Michael Mann’s The Keep (1983), Paul Verhoeven’s Flesh + Blood (1985), Jean-Jacques Annaud’s The Name of the Rose (1986), and John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness (1987).

The Church was budgeted at $3.5 million (U.S. dollars), and filmed between September-November 1988.

Many of the scenes were filmed outside the visually mind-blowing Matthias Church in Budapest, Hungary’s Castle District, as well as in front of the Fisherman’s Bastion, among the most popular attractions in all of Europe.

Argento had wanted to film at St. Lorenz Church in Nuremberg, in southern Germany, but city officials balked at the location being used for a horror film. The film’s interior scenes were shot on soundstages in Rome, Italy, and downtown Hamburg, Germany.

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Keith Emerson (of ELP) had expressed an interest in composing the film’s score, and so Argento reached out to him, nine years after they’d worked together on his film Inferno, but in the end Soavi and Argento used just three original pieces, including the film’s organ-driven main title, as well as Emerson’s re-arrangement of J.S. Bach’s “Prelude 24” from The Well Tempered Clavier: Book I.

Argento also used a previously-released piece of music credited to “The Goblins” although it was actually performed solo by Goblin‘s Fabio Pignatelli.

There were also two original pieces composed by Philip Glass, excerpting music released on his 1981 album Glassworks.

Watch The Church and other Horror Month: Gothic & Erotic Thrillers on Night Flight Plus.

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.