Monday, September 24, 2012

The Sect / La setta (1991)

Beautiful dreams turn into pulse pounding nightmares in Michele Soavi’s highly intricate cult-conspiracy masterpiece, THE SECT (aka THE DEVIL'S DAUGHTER).  

Soavi is the type of director that seems to make every movie as if it was his last, taking the chance to squeeze in as many ideas, symbolism, and set pieces as possible. The result is eclectic and convoluted but also spellbinding, as in THE SECT and CEMETERY MAN, with the former being the more ominous and downbeat of the two, likely the result of everyone working to appease the boss-man, Dario Argento

Part of the reason for the intricacy is because THE SECT is a product of three different writers, Argento, Soavi, and Gianni Romoli,* all of whom seemed to have their own visions. The production of the movie started with a screenplay for an unrealized movie called CATACOMBS by Romoli, and Argento took it and added his input, which included references to The Rolling Stones (he’s a huge fan).* Soavi further incorporated a script from an unrealized movie of his, THE WELL, and layered it with esotericism and Celtic symbolism, and the seemingly independent ideas from three different heads was further refined and finalized by Romoli* into one hellava movie.

Nevertheless, the convoluted nature of the film has harmed it for a large fraction of viewers, making it difficult to follow and giving it an underlining annoyance that the movie may not be going anywhere. Therefore, the recommended way to view this is to just concern oneself with what is taking place at hand without worrying about where the story is leading to. It’s best to enjoy the individual segments for what they’re worth, and being that there’s a lot of gold here, they’re worth a lot.

When talking about Michele Soavi’s preceding film THE CHURCH, I once said that I like to think of the movie as a compilation of mini-masterpieces. The same implies here, though without being so much a compilation, as we are not bouncing around between different characters and protagonists, as in THE CHURCH, because THE SECT stays well focused on its lead character, Miriam, played by Kelly Curtis who is of relation to the legendary scream queens Jamie-Lee Curtis of HALLOWEEN and Janet Leigh of PSYCHO. Kelly Curtis’s appearance and personality in this just screams single elementary school teacher, which is fitting because she plays one.

Before the story focuses on Miriam, however, there’s a lot of fear instillation from a couple intro segments depicting some brutal and vile deeds from the secret satanic cult, making this feel like it’s going to be a pretty cruel movie. A disturbing scene written by Argento sees a hippie commune murdered in the desert by the sect in a massacre orchestrated by the creepy cult member with a Charles Manson vibe, Damon (Tomas Arana), with neither woman nor child spared from being sacrificed and burned. It becomes obvious that this is going to be far from the campy fun of some of the previous Argento produced films, such as DEMONS.

The tone of the film next becomes even blacker and more ominous when a woman walking home after shopping for groceries is spotted by a man (Italian horror legend Giovanni Lombardo Radice), and bad things happen. The man is a cult member and recognizes the woman as a previous member that had eloped, and so he pursues and follows her home before murdering her, further solidifying the cult’s malignancy. Radice’s role here is brief but unforgettable. His distrustful look and the way he leers at the victim before stalking her gives me the creeps, more so since he is holding his young kid that he passes to his wife, suggesting that these cult members lurk within society, live normal lives, and could be anyone.
Herbert Lom plays the creepy enigmatic old man, Moebius Kelly, with a package box in hand, embarking on a mysterious journey, with an even more mysterious agenda. We are finally introduced to Miriam (Curtis) when Moebius wanders into the street in a fit of erratic behavior causing Miriam to nearly hit him with her car. Unbelievable as it may sound, she offers him rest and respite at her home, possibly as an apology of sorts, and in her living room a strange conversation ensues. The conversation between Moebius and Miriam is incoherently fascinating, as it seems to wander between unrelated topics, like a strange dream, but still gives an interesting insight about Miriam.

Later that night, when Moebius sneaks into Miriam’s room while she is sleeping, all the implications of a coming sexual assault are present, but this ends up not being the case, because Moebius’s motive here, like the music of The Rolling Stones that is numerously referenced, seems to be a little more on the profound side. Moebius appears to be in poor health and very close to death, and he speaks of a long journey and being very close to achieving his goal. What his goal is specifically isn’t made clear at this point, but it’s eerily apparent that it has something to do with planting a rare and sacred bug through Miriam’s nostril and into her brain while she’s sleeping, resulting in Miriam having a beautifully shot dream/nightmare that is a grand highlight in the film, amongst many.

While Miriam is away, Moebius makes his way to a hidden, secret basement in Miriam’s house that not even she knows about, with a one-hundred foot deep well (a key set piece). The secret well is Soavi’s main contribution to the story, and we return to it numerous times, as it does play a significant role. In a way it can be thought of as the source for the horror at hand. It brings to mind Lucio Fulci’s THE BEYOND when it is later referred to as one of Hell’s doors.

The allure of Moebius just builds and builds, we don’t know just who he is at this point, what he’s about, and what he’s up to, but it’s something esoteric, and everything he does is chill-inducing. He plants the final seed to his enigmatic goal by setting his package box he’s been protective of aflame, dropping it down the deep well and in the process contaminating the house’s water supply, giving the water a bluish gel look, before dying with a sweaty handkerchief wrapped around his face that acts as a shroud that he is able to preserve his soul in. The beautiful feminine chanting music that plays when Moebius dies here gives a suggestive depiction about death that I love, in that it makes the transition from this world into the next come off as something beautiful.

After Moebius’s body is discovered and taken away by paramedics, there’s a pretty random jump scare moment where Miriam discovers a strange lady lurking in her basement who was attempting to retrieve the shroud for the purpose of using it in a resurrection ceremony to come. But Miriam stops her, and since this strange woman was unable to obtain the shroud, the cult will have to resort to much more drastic measures to revive their cult leader, which includes face ripping. The gruesome ceremony culminates into a revelation for Miriam that is derivative of ROSEMARY’S BABY. However, the way things play out is actually the ending that I wished ROSEMARY’S BABY had instead. There’s also something very exciting about the final climax that involves fire, darkness, screaming, and pounding progressive rock music. The aforementioned elements just make for such great climaxes in films like INFERNO, SUSPIRIA, and PHENOMENA. Also, the closing scene, if slightly corny, is moving.

I haven’t decided yet if the film is made up of several different plots or one big intricate plot. Some might even say that there is no plot at all, but I disagree, because there is a central story here that is sometimes distracted by being imbued with stylish symbolism that serves to give additional meaning and depth as well as provide an ascetic beauty to the backdrop, set pieces, cinematography, and story. If you’re familiar with the gruesome stage setup during the climax to the film STAGEFRIGHT, you’ll recall that Soavi likes to artistically decorate his scenes with superfluous but marvelous visuals that transcend dreamlike and surreal. My favorite here is the densely concentrated, cotton-like Mayblossom flakes that float by in the foreground and background mostly during the scenes at the elementary school Miriam teaches at. It’s extra surreal when the cotton-like substance can be seen floating by indoors, too. The Mayblossom is not only indicative of the time of the year that the story is taking place in, around the time of the Celtic holiday known as Beltane on the first of May, but also a depiction of the coming curse that the movie is moving ever closer to. I like to think of the cotton flakes as coming from the giant Celtic decorated tree that appears in Miriam’s nightmare and behind her German country home by the secret exit near the basement well, where a cosmic, meticulous Lovecraftian ceremony will take place.

The assault to the senses from some of the random, surreal moments is more fascinating than annoying. Consider Miriam’s intelligent pet bunny, for instance, which is like a fun accessory to the story that adds a little children’s fairytale magic to the home setting, overseeing things with remarkable comprehension, changing channels on the TV with the remote, and helping to just bring out the kid a little in everyone watching.

"Ia! Shub-Niggurath! I summon thee, great black goat of the woods; I make the sign, I proclaim the words. Come... I turn the key"!!! --Damon/ Tomas Arana

Soavi also implements radically different ways of depicting familiar horror events in the story, like the cursed shroud that causes characters to change as a result of being possessed/cursed/infected. Mariangela Giordano of BURIAL GROUND fame is on hand as Miriam’s friend, Kathryn, to share her ageless beauty and talent for unhinged horror acting. She is the first to get possessed by the shroud that clings to her face like those little creatures that hatch out of eggs in ALIENS. She goes completely out of her mind and ends up stabbed to death by a trucker, which leads to a morgue scene that disturbs me every time I watch it.

THE SECT feels like a major step forward from Soavi’s previous THE CHURCH, while the following CEMETERY MAN is more like a major transformation. While I love them both, CEMETERY MAN feels so different for me that it’s like comparing apples and oranges, and so I can’t decide which I like more. I do recognize that CEMETERY MAN is immensely more popular and more accessible.

There is so much to this movie; one could write on end about it. It should be watched with patience and an open mind and re-watched as well from time to time, because its depth keeps it feeling fresh and makes it so there’s a little something new to notice or realize every time. 

Great work, Mr. Soavi! I’m looking forward to your return to the Italian horror scene.
*Jones, A., (2004). Profondo Argento: The Man, the Myths & the Magic. Fab Press.


  1. As always, wonderful review. You've definitely done your research!

    One thing that always surprises me about this film is how long it is. So many things happen that it is rarely boring. The convoluted nature never bothered me because I expected it after hearing about that silly bunny (and also because it's an Italian horror film).

    I really liked Soavi's inclusion of the stork and rabbit, it reminded me of a picture of the pagan goddess of fertility; Eostre, who was the origin of Easter. In addition to adding a wealth of symbolism, Soavi makes a potential Rosemary's Baby rip-off into something special and unique.

    That Lovecraft-referring ritual is definitely a highlight along with the scenes with the stork. Makes me really hope that Soavi would make another horror film (though I've heard his TV work is very good).

    1. I got most of my research from Alan Jones’s book PROFONDO ARGENTO; I probably should cite that, as he was the one who visited the filming set to learn all of this and not me, lol.

      This was the final film from Soavi that I saw and given what I already knew, I wasn’t too surprised with how it turned out, though I was still pleased (obviously).

      The image you’ve provided easily compares with some of the different items in the film, and it makes me wonder if Miriam might have been a slight representation of the goddess of fertility, Eostre (consider what happens at the very end, after the fire is put out, it was definitely goddess-like).

      The chanting whispers during the ceremony make it extra creepy. This was done previously to pretty good effect in THE CHURCH as well, and if I remember correctly, it was also revisited in DEMONS 5: THE DEVIL’S VEIL. Been meaning to check out Soavi’s TV films, but as it stands, I’m only familiar with his horror foursome.

  2. As always, spectacular review. This is the one Soavi film that I keep overlooking, and for no good reason. But now I definitely need to put it at the top of my list (especially if this is "a step forward from The Church", which I love).

    1. If you dug THE CHURCH then there’s very little chance you’ll be disappointed here. At roughly two hours, it’s a little long, though, but it’s understandable given the incredible depth of the movie. Hope you like it nonetheless, and I’d be curious to know your thoughts when you watch it.

  3. I thought the film was a shambles, but a beautifully realised shambles. Thought The Church was a far more coherent effort but over time I suspect it will be the Sect I will be drawn to viewing again. There was so much delightful randomness in there. How about the rabbit!

    It has been a while since I looked at this film but wonder if the Rolling Stones thing was a reference to the Manson cult as Charlie had that thing about The Beatles and Helter Skelter.

    1. Hi Nigel! THE CHURCH is great, too. Though it stayed focused on the church setting itself, I thought it felt much more fragmented due to the story diverging to a huge abundance of different characters that were locked in the church, where in THE SECT the settings were far greater, but we at least stay on one person’s story, for the most part at least. Though I don’t want to seem like I’m taking any shots at THE CHURCH, it’s a spellbinding film, too. When thinking about the rabbit, I recall that he ends up never heard from, just randomly written out of the story as randomly as he was written in. Though I think Terence nailed it with the rabbit and the stork being part of the Pagan legend about the Goddess of fertility and the origin of Easter.

      I was reading that it was Dario that was so attached to that 1960s era, and it was he who wrote into the script The Rolling Stones references and the Manson-esque character, Damon, as well as the hippie commune at the opening to the film, and so I’d say it is safe to assume that that intro segment with the massacre was supposed to be a major reference to the Manson Family, though I can’t help thinking that given how different everything else becomes later on, it was probably not Soavi’s main intention but something he had to go along with.

  4. Ah, bummer, FAMOUS MONSTERS just reported Herbert Lom died today...

    1. It’s always a bummer, and given my taste in older movies, I’m always hearing about the death of filmmakers and actors I like. In THE SECT, a film full of interesting characters, Herbert Lom was the most interesting; I think I wrote about him the most in this write up and he’s easily the most impressive actor here. I’m sure there’s a ton of great films he was in that I’ve yet to see, but I remember him also being great in 99 WOMEN and THE MARK OF THE DEVIL, as well.

  5. saw 99 Women only a few days ago. He was never NOT good, and often was very good bordering on great. Thanks for the great website!

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  7. I watched this movie at the age of 8, and didn't understand it. But I just now, 25 years later decided to watch it. Mind is blown. I love this article it's exactly what I came to read about.