In 1985, Lamberto Bava and Dario Argento introduced the world to the reality of Demons. That film delivered fun and frights in an overly gory film that has become a cult favorite. They wasted no time in following that success with the equally crazy and perhaps even more unglued sequel in 1986 with Demons 2. Clearly they did not want to let up the momentum but also did not have a unified creative direction as to where to take the series, so in 1989 The Church (aka La Chiesa) was released and is often considered Demons 3, despite the lack of direct connection. Of course, it is one of three films to be referred to as Demons 3. If there is one thing fun about Italian horror, it is navigating the web of alternate titles.
Seriously, there are so many alternate titles and movie series that aren’t movie series that it is hard to keep up. For example, take Zombie, it is also known as Zombi 2. You see, in Italy, Dawn of the Dead was released as Zombi and this was released to try to capitalize on that. There is also Zombie 3, Zombie 4: The Killing Birds, and Zombie 5: After Death. None of them are related and the last 2 just had the name tacked on for marketing purposes. The same thing happened with the Demons series. Lamberto Bava and Dardano Sachetti made a TV movie called The Ogre, which is sometimes called Demons 3, and Umberto Lenzi made a film called Black Demons, which was retitled Demons 3 for video release. Then there is Michele Soavi’s 1991 film, La Sette, which is called Demons 4, and his 1994 film, Cemetery Man, called Demons ‘95. Can’t keep them straight, and thematically there is little to connect them to each other.
The Church was originally intended to be officially titled Demons 3. The problem was that director and co-writer (and frequent Argento collaborator) Michele Soavi (who appeared in the first Demons film, in 2 roles!), wanted the film to stand on its own separate from the series. This meant that any references to prior events was rewritten out of the film. Although, despite not being credited, Lamberto Bava and Dardano Sachetti did work on the script alongside Soavi, Argento, and Franco Ferrini. The movie does have more plot and flows in a more restrained manner than the prior Demons films, but there could still be a connection between the films.
Our story begins in the past, a band of Teutonic knights are led to a village of supposed devil worshippers. They proceed to slaughter the village and bury them in a mass grave. The pit is covered, blessed, and sealed with a cross. The only possible survivor is a young girl (Asia Argento) who watches from the nearby trees. She is spotted by a knight, who chases her down. We watch as he thrusts with his spear, but we never see the girl killed.
Jumping to the present, a gothic cathedral has been built over the mass grave, the cross seal being in the basement. Everything has been fine as the seal remains undisturbed and tucked away from prying eyes, but that is about to change. A new librarian, Evan (Tomas Arana, The Last Temptation of Christ) arrives at the church, hired to catalog all of the old books in the library. He joins a young woman, Lisa (Barbara Cupisti, New York Ripper), who is working on restoring the paintings. There are others around, Father Gus (Hugh Quarshie, Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace), an old bishop, the sacristan and his daughter, Lotte (Asia
Argento). On top of those, you have a wide variety of victims to be wandering the church.
Of course, the seal is discovered. As Evan tries to figure out its purpose, it breaks open releasing the hell that has been kept trapped beneath for hundreds of years. This triggers a lockdown of the cathedral, trapping everyone inside. The demonic infestation begins to spread and infect everyone. People begin to act strange, see demons begin to infect all of those in the church. This leaves Father Gus to follow up on the revelation that the cathedral can be brought down to stop the spread of evil.
The latter half of the film splits its time between between batsh*t crazy demons, kills, rape, and sacrifice, while the more serious portion involves trying to survive and bring the cathedral down to stop the demons. It is artful, cheesy, and so very entertaining. Then, much like the two official Demons films, ends on a note that is open to interpretation and could be seen as bleak and foreboding, but at the same time it is strangely comforting.
Taking the film on its own merits, as Soavi intended, is a rewarding experience. There really is a lot to like here and it doesn’t need the influence of any other films to give it a sense of worth, on that level Soavi succeeded. It presents a compelling story all on its own, involving the sins of past being unleashed on the present and relying on the altruism of the hero, although his role is not immediately seen, to save the day, or at least as much of it as he can.
The Church is not all about visceral reactions, it has that story of the knights and the evi and how its been trapped. Still, when it comes to the guts and gore, it delivers the goods. There are impalings, decapitations, clawing, even getting smashed on the front of a train. This is a move to enjoy, whether you want to watch for the horror aspects, the story parts, or something in between.
The fun comes in if you want to tie it to the mythology of the two demons films. On the surface, they appear to be unrelated, and that is by design, but the good thing about the franchise is that through two films it continues to reinvent itself and change the rules. It is a franchise that is not afraid to shake itself up a little bit and play with the reality it is creating and reshaping. It is because of this that you can still work The Church in. It doesn’t hurt that a lot of those involved with the initial Demons outings have their voices involved here.
I look at this film as something of a prequel to Demons. I see this world as having a number of portal possibilities between our reality and the demon reality and the burying of the evil by the knights weakened the barrier between worlds, the seal creating a tenuous wall holding the evil back. Once broken, they gateway was opened and the evil flowed into our world.
Now, you have to ask, if it is the same universe, why don’t they look at least similar? I suspect the demon world has multiple types of demons and the ones congregated around this gateway are this type, while the ones on those other films are a different breed, if you will. I know it is a stretch, but we are talking about linking demonic movies into one universe, there is going to be a little stretching going on.
It is a prequel because I see these events happening before the events of Demons. As this film ends we watch Lotte climb into the ruins and see a blue glow from the gate and her smiling. To me this says the collapsing of the cathedral did not seal the gate, just slowed their process. This results in Lotte becoming a demonic envoy, working from this side of the gate. She probably encounters the man with the metal face seen in Demons. Of course, this would be some point later and she is grown up and he is not yet masked. She enlists him to help open the gates and they encounter the new type of demons and set up the Metropol trap.
I don’t know, perhaps I am reaching. Perhaps I am stretching too far and the tenuous connection has snapped under my revisionist views on how they connect. Still, it is interesting to contemplate what might have been and what could be, and also try to apply logic in the absence thereof. Don’t you think?