THE CHURCH (1989) Standard Edition Blu-ray
Director: Michele Soavi
Scorpion Releasing

Scorpion discovers that "in this unholy sanctuary, you haven't got a prayer" with their Blu-ray of the Dario Argento-produced THE CHURCH.

Centuries after a gothic church is erected over the mass grave of villagers slaughtered by the Knights Templar on suspicion of demonic possession, the building's secrets are in danger of coming out. New librarian Evan (Tomas Arana, THE SECT) is cataloging the ancient tomes but comes to believe that church's catacombs may contain something equivalent to the Ark of the Covenant when restoration supervisor Lisa (Barbara Cupisti, STAGE FRIGHT) discovers an ancient parchment in a hollow pillar. While the prissy reverend (Giovanni Lombardo Radice, CANNIBAL FEROX) lives in willful ignorance and the Sacristan (Roberto Corbiletto, THE VOICE OF THE MOON) is more concerned with the purity of his teenage daughter Lotte (Asia Argento, TRAUMA) who manages to slip out of the locked church to dance clubs nightly, faith-challenged Father Gus (Hugh Quarshie, NIGHTBREED) is having strange visions and the starchy old bishop (Feodor Chalipin, INFERNO) is quietly destroying texts related to the building of the church and its alchemist architect (John Richardson, BLACK SUNDAY) whose is entombed in an alcove guarded by menacing statues of hooded monks. Evan removes a "stone with seven eyes" from a giant cross sealing the pit of bodies and becomes possessed, spreading a contagion which leads to the triggering of the church's failsafe device, sealing off the only exit to the church and trapping everyone within, including a disaster movie spectrum of humanity: a vain models (OPERA's Antonella Vitale and Lars Jorgenson), a bickering biker couple (THE ALCOVE's Roberto Caruso and ROBOT JOX's Claire Hardwick), a bickering elderly couple (SLAUGHTER HOTEL's John Karlsen and Katherine Bell Marjorie), along with a schoolteacher (Patrizia Punzo, CEMETERY MAN) and a gaggle of schoolkids on a field trip. As they fall prey to temptation, damnation, and freak accidents, Father Gus and Lotte search for the "secret spot" capable of bringing the walls of the church down on the possessed.

Originally mounted as DEMONS III by Lamberto Bava – one iteration of the script let loose the demons on an airplane – THE CHURCH was taken over by Michele Soavi who got his first chance to direct with STAGE FRIGHT for Joe D'Amato while also working as assistant director for Lamberto Bava (A BLADE IN THE DARK) and second unit director on Dario Argento's OPERA. The film seems to have been muddled from the start with a screenplay credited to Argento, Soavi, and Franco Ferrini (PHENOMENA) which probably had some stray material from Bava's and Dardano Sacchetti's drafts, but the reported removal of nearly thirty minutes of footage by Argento probably also did not help. What survives is nevertheless visually compelling if not so much narrative beyond the first half of the film which references alchemist Fulcanelli's "The Mystery of the Cathedrals" but also owes much to M.R. James' "The Treasure of Abbot Thomas" (especially Lawrence Gordon Clark's "Ghost Stories for Christmas" adaptation from which it incorporates the hooded figure lurking in the periphery of various shots within the church and even those without when the influence strays outside the walls). As the Boschian frescoes fade from the walls and victims start hallucinating imagery out of Boris Vallejo, the last half-hour is a string of gory set-pieces with animatronics by Sergio Stivaletti (DEMONS) and make-up artist Rosario Prestopino (NEW YORK RIPPER) and Franco Casagni (THE STENDHAL SYNDROME) including impalements by jackhammer and iron gates, face-tearing, a face-splattering by subway train, and more before an extended homage to ROSEMARY'S BABY in which Fabio Pignatelli's "Possessione" theme rips of Krzysztof Komeda's own cue for the sequence referenced. The score also features organ cues from Keith Emerson, covers of two Philip Glass cues, and the Simon Boswell vocal "Imagination" also featured in Lamberto Bava's Boswell-scored GRAVEYARD DISTURBANCE and Clive Barker's LORD OF ILLUSIONS. Soavi's most startling imagery is realized by cinematographer Renato Tafuri (DIAL: HELP) with the help of production designer Massimo Antonello Geleng (MOTHER OF TEARS) who meticulously recreated the interior of an actual Italian cathedral for the more sacrilegious sequences along with the ancient gear works that seal the church and finally bring it down. Although the film is set in Germany, the exterior of the church is Budapest's monumental Matthias Church while Hamburg's St. Nicholas' Church which was bombed in WWII with only the spire and crypt remaining represents the church after its collapse. Cupisti's sister Olivia plays one of the stigmatized villagers in the opening sequence.

After a limited theatrical release, THE CHURCH was released to home video in the United States in 1991 in unrated and rated semi-letterboxed transfers from Southgate Entertainment (a superior letterboxed transfer was released before that on Japanese laserdisc and VHS under the title DEMONS 3). While Anchor Bay's 2002 DVD (reissued by Blue Underground in 2007) featured an okay anamorphic 1.85:1 widescreen transfer with English Dolby Digital 5.1 EX and Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround Chace remixes of the original mono track, the Italian DVD from Cecchi Gori featured an Italian DTS 5.1 and Dolby Digital 5.1 track as well as the English dub in 5.1 which were much more active than domestic remixes but the uncorrected PAL speedup of the voices was particularly distracting with the Argento's little-girl dubbing while Arana dubbing himself sounded like he had inhaled a small amount of helium. The bankruptcy of Cecchi-Gori prevented the film from being licensed again for a long period before Code Red announced the title before turning it over to Scorpion Releasing. Beating the domestic Blu-ray to the market was a Japanese edition from Kadokawa that turned out to be an upscale, a much better alternative from Shameless in the UK, and a limited edition leatherbook three-disc edition from '84 Entertainment in Germany.

Sourced from a 2K scan of the original camera negatives, Scorpion has given the master a high-bitrate, dual-layer 1080p24 MPEG-4 1.66:1 widescreen encode is mouthwatering from the first shot onwards. Whereas the background of the credits looked to be a freeze frame in previous transfers, bubbles moving across the surface of the puddle are evident here while the color timing differences are also immediately apparent. While the cassette releases had a rather dingy sepiatone during the opening prologue, the SD DVD transfers had the look of being set mid-day. The HD master during this sequence is somewhere in between with these two while delivering gore-geous blood reds and an enhanced appreciation some of the subtler uses of blue lighting throughout as well as the textures of the authentic church and Geleng's sets. The original English mono mix is presented on a DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 track that is free of any distracting hiss or other damage. While the original English prints and video transfers of the film had an English end credits sequence utilizing the same font as the opening credits that credited "Dialogs for the Inglish Version" to Nick Alexander, Anchor Bay's transfer featured a revised credit sequence with a different font that appears to have also been film-based as it also appears at the end of Scorpion's presentation.

Although the German edition was not English-friendly, the fact that it shares two extras with the American standard edition suggests that the rest of the interviews listed for the German disc will be present in the Scorpion limited edition. The interview with director Soavi (19:48) at first seems like it has been ported over from THE SECT as it utilizes the same introduction in which Soavi speaks about his admiration for Argento and how he became involved but then switches over to more focused discussion of the film at hand. He reveals that Lamberto Bava refused to do DEMONS III and that Argento gave him the freedom to rework the "basic script" as he saw fit, and that Argento consulted demonologist Monsignor Corrado Balducci as to whether anything in the script might be offensive to Catholics. He touches upon the use of Fulcanelli and the notion of some mysterious cosmic that lead to the sudden onset of the Gothic tradition and cathedrals suddenly springing up all over Europe in the year 1000, their search for a suitable church location and the input of production designer Geleng as well as Soavi's own love of painting and iconography. He also discusses the reason for the multi-authored soundtrack as Emerson worked remotely in London and brought some good cues to Rome but that not all fit the film's mood, leading to the incorporation of covers of Glass and additional cues by Goblin.

In the interview with actress Asia Argento (8:36), she recalls that the church had to be deconsecrated and re-consecrated every day during the shoot, working with Soavi and the reverence with which Chaliapin was held by the cast and crew, Argento's girlfriend Vitale enjoying the opportunity to work as an actress (she laughs when being reminded of the character's fate), and admits to being too young for the role at twelve when the characters should have been sixteen just as she was also too young to play a cop in THE STENDHAL SYNDROME. The disc also includes the film's theatrical trailer (2:05) as well as trailers for THE SECT, SLEEPLESS, OPERA, ETOILE, and THE CARD PLAYER. (Eric Cotenas)