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Entries in Sect/The [1991] (1)

Friday
Mar092018

The Sect (1991)

And 'Italian Horror' was its Name--Oh!

I came up with a party game while watching The Sect. Forgive my ignorance if this already exists, but it’s time to put Italian Horror Bingo front and center in the popular consciousness. Let’s break it down:

B=“Basement” Michael Soavi’s film, which he co-wrote with Giaovanni Romoli and genre icon Dario Argento, centers on kindergarten teacher Miriam Kreisl (Kelly Curtis*) who discovers a terrible secret brewing in the bowels of her modest German home. Like The House by the Cemetary, Opera, and The Beyond, this discovery takes just long enough for dark forces to harm people close to our heroine—without giving her enough time to actually stop said dark forces.

I="Identity" What’s the nature of the big bad thing in the basement, you ask? It’s connected to Miriam’s past somehow, and over the course of a tedious first act (not counting the grisly flashback that opens the film), we learn that she’s been a lightning rod for malevolence all her life. Are the cut-aways to gruesome, seemingly unrelated murders a coincidence? If City of the Living Dead taught us anything, the answer is, “Probably not”.

N="Nasty" In my limited but ever-expanding experience, Italian horror flicks are not designed as groundbreaking narrative achievements or acting showcases.** Fans show up for the gore, and while The Sect is somewhat restrained in the frequency of its murder set pieces, Soavi and company really make their squeamish moments count. From an innocuous mega-close-up of an eyeball absorbing an iodine drop; to a truly bizarre moment in which a character takes a hypodermic needle to the point of her nose; to the pièce de résistance involving hooks, a face, and an idea that should have made Clive Barker reconsider his day job, The Sect boasts downright artistic in-camera and practical effects that will make you stop peeking, pause the film, and study the frames.

G="Guardian" The “thing in the basement” must be protected at all costs by forces both supernatural and all-too-tragically human. As the title suggests, The Sect is about a cult of demon-worshiping hippies (and possible global power elites?) whose designs on poor Miriam may just involve an unborn child.

Best friends and would-be boyfriends are no match for the creepy old man (Herbert Lom) who befriends Miriam following a car accident; the possessed shroud whose favorite hobby is face-hugging meddlers; or the preternaturally intelligent bunny rabbit who pops up to occasionally chew on pipes, change channels on the television, and prevent Miriam’s doctor friend (Michel Adatte) from escaping the basement. Guardians aren’t exclusive to Italian horror movies, of course (one of the best examples can be found in the mainstream progenitor of this film, Rosemary’s Baby), but they’re always fun to spot, and to root for as they turn on whatever hapless fool tries to interfere with their plans.

The strangest guardian I can think of is The Sect’s reservoir of blue water. It’s full of spindly veins that creep through the house, winding their way up from an underground cistern—which, of course, is an…

O= "Opening to Hell" If you believe a random sampling of Italian horror movies, subterranean portals to perdition are as common in real estate as attached garages. Sometimes they act as infectious turnstiles, transforming those who venture inside into flesh-eating zombies; sometimes they are merely doorways that, once opened, unleash hordes of demons upon the idyllic European community of the week.

Soavi, Romoli, and Argento do things a little differently, using a combination of the blue water, human sacrifice, and Miriam’s fertile womb to bring forth a bouncing baby Beelzebub. In this case, the Devil (or whatever Satanic agent has been granted surrogate fatherhood) is alternately depicted as a crane, a resurrected dead guy covered in bright blue feathers, and a shadow on the basement wall whose erection we get to see in real-time (if you know where to look).

No matter which movie you choose to put on when playing Italian Horror Bingo, chances are you’ll win. Sure, many of these movies lend themselves to crossing tropes off a scorecard, but there’s often a creative zeal and a desire to disgust (or at least unsettle) that gives this sub-genre the edge over, say, off-brand slasher movies, torture porn, or franchise reboots.

The Sect, for all its aping of Polanski (and, yes, Argento), has a lot to offer—especially in its deliciously dark and ambiguous resolution, whose meaning you may just puzzle out for days.

Don’t agonize over it too much. There are parties to plan, after all.

*The resemblance to sister Jamie Lee is striking.

**In fairness, the latter is often hard to gauge, thanks to often comical English dubbing.