The Sect (La setta, aka The Devil's Daughter) was the third film directed by Michele Soavi, whose filmmaking career began as an extension of his mentor's, Dario Argento. Argento gave Soavi his break into the world of Italian horror by hiring him as an assistant director on Tenebre (1982), and although he did not have a hand in Soavi's directorial debut, the inventive slasher mystery Stagefright (1987), he co-wrote and co-produced his second film, The Church (La chiesa, 1989). The Sect feels like a kind of spiritual sequel to The Church, as both trade in grandiose religious horror that relies on oblique, baroque imagery and the presence of ancient evil in the modern world.
The film opens in the late 1960s, where we meet a commune of hippies living their own blissful existence in the desert (the fact that this is a European production is immediately tipped off by the fact that a title card establishes that the action is taking place in "South California," rather than "Southern California"). All is well until the arrival of a Rolling Stones-quoting, Charles Manson-esque biker named Damon (Tomas Arana), who initially pretends to be just another free spirit, but ultimately proves to be something much darker and more malevolent.
Fast-forward two decades and we are introduced to the film's protagonist, a gentle American teacher named Miriam (Kelly Curtis, sister of Halloween star Jamie Lee Curtis), who has taken a position in Frankfurt, Germany. One day, she almost runs over an old man named Moebius Kelly (Herbert Lom) when he shambles out into the road, and against her better judgement she brings the apparently homeless man back to her apartment to recuperate. There is an air of mystery about the old man (how could there not with a name like Moebius Kelly?), and he clutches a crudely wrapped package under his arm that you just know will be the key to some kind of supernatural something-or-other. Soavi, who co-wrote the screenplay with Argento and Giovanni Romoli (who also wrote Soavi's next film, 1994's Cemetery Man), does a nice job building up a sense of mystery, dropping enough clues to suggest some kind of connection between Moebius and Miriam without revealing too much (the protracted prologue with the hippies and the murderous Damon is always lurking in the back of our minds, of course-you just know he's going to re-emerge at some point).
As with many of Argento's films, The Sect unfolds in a kind of dreamlike haze, with plot points connecting just enough to sustain an unfolding narrative, but still leaving plenty of room for bizarre detours, surrealistic tracking shots, and horrific visuals that feel plucked out of a nightmare. Some of the film's best sequences are actual nightmares, including one in which Miriam finds herself in a fairy-tale like forest and her nightgown is stretched to impossible lengths through which Soavi's camera travels. Like Argento's camera tends to do, Soavi's travels a lot, sometimes to great effect and sometimes to do little more than take up time. Working with cinematographer Raffaele Mertes, Soavi makes The Sect a strangely beautiful film, although at times it has a kind of amateurism that undercuts its effectiveness (the opening prologue, in particular, feels at times like a bad student film).
Curtis makes for an appealing, sympathetic protagonist, which Soavi's previous two films had lacked (especially The Church, all of whose characters were various shades of insufferable). She is put through the wringer, as her encounter with Moebius Kelly unleashes all sorts of threats to her physically, psychologically, and spiritually. As in The Church, The Sect is deeply invested in the visual potential of a hidden portal that, once opened, unleashes an ancient evil; in this case, it is a deep well in the basement of the house where Miriam lives. The well is a great visual that is both mysterious and oddly familiar, and its linkage to the sewer system reminds us that, particularly in an urban environment, our living spaces are all nodes on one large network that keeps us connected. The film's intensity gradually ratchets up, and while Soavi does a good job keeping the ultimate destination vague for a long time, its arrival can't help but be a bit disappointing since it plays into such familiar territory. Nevertheless, Soavi keeps a few tricks up his sleeve, including a genuinely bizarre action climax that allows for both sacrifice and resurrection.
Copyright 2018 James Kendrick
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All images copyright Scorpion Releasing
Overall Rating: (2.5)
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