Halloween is approaching and it’s time to celebrate with a few horror movies. Sadly I did again not get around to review as many movies as I wanted, due to my jobs and all those other inconveniences that prevent us from leading a truly fulfilled life of watching movies, playing video games and surfing the web….was there anything else? I think I covered it.
That’s why I took the approach of my co-writer IAB as an example and decided to write an omnibus review of two unrelated horror movies which are only thematically connected, as they both dabble in the topics of Satanism and occultism.
The Mephisto Waltz (1971)
directed by: Paul Wendkos
The life story of music journalist Myles Clarkson (Alan Alda!) probably resembles that of many of his colleagues: After his first concert as a pianist was unfairly panned by critics, he decided to start to make a living with interviewing classic musicians for a music magazine. His life takes a drastic change when he gets the chance to interview the mysterious piano genius Duncan Ely (Curd Jürgens!) who is residing as a recluse in a vast mansion, which he shares with his elusive daughter Roxanne (Barbara Parkins).
The interview takes an unexpected turn when Ely notices Clarkson’s hands which he describes as the perfect instruments for piano-playing. Before you know it, an unlikely friendship between the two men develops and Ely introduces Clarkson to his eccentric snobby friends and his beautiful daughter. Clarkson’s wife Paula (Jacqueline Bisset!) is rather wary of Ely and his posse though. Particularly the mysterious Roxanne, who seems to have an uncomfortably close relationship to her father, rubs Paula the wrong way and she worries that they might have a bad influence on Myles. She softens a little when Mylo tells her that Ely is suffering from a rare terminal disease and only has a few months to live left. To prolong Ely’s lifespan, Mylo agrees to donate some blood, but little does he know that this noble gesture will soon reveal to be a fatal decision, as Roxanne and Ely actually use it for a mysterious Satanic ritual.
After Ely’s death, events overturn. Apparently Ely wrote Mylo into his testament, bequeathing his piano and a $100.000 to him. Even more confusing is the fact that Mylo doesn’t only pick up playing piano again, but just a few days of practice seem to elevate his talents to that of a world-class level maestro. Understandably, Paula doesn’t share Roxanne’s enthusiasm, who is bent to send Mylo on a world tour.
The uncomfortable question Paula has to ask herself is: Did Mylo sell his soul to Satan to obtain Ely’s talent?
First things first: The plot description might evoke some false expectations- at least that happened to me. I hope I don’t reveal too much here, but let me tell you that the whole Faustian pact story only serves as a backdrop and the plot veers into a different direction, with the focus shifting from Alan Alda, who is presented as the protagonist in the beginning, to Jacqueline Bisset. Once it has become her story, Mephisto pretty much follows the tropes of Rosemary’s Baby, whose astoundingly durable plot patterns were imitated in so many movies during the 70s and the following decades.
Means, Bisset’s character gets more and more entangled into what she believes is a Satanic conspiracy while the people surrounding her are concerned she might just be losing her mind, a plotline most horror fans will be quite familiar with. It’s one of the better ripoffs of Polanski’s classic though and more importantly, it dares to break out of the formula with a nice twist in the finale. Let me just say that Bisset’s character does a few things Mia Farrow’s meek Rosemary would have never even considered. Otherwise there are not many surprises, most of the movie’s mysteries are played out in front of the audience. That doesn’t hurt its entertainment value, thankfully, which can to a large part be attributed to the fact that it is a quality effort on many levels. The camerawork is smooth and elegant, but going over the top in the right spots, with swaying camera movements to evoke an unreal, nightmare-like feeling. Wide lense shots and Dutch angles galore!
Mephisto can also boast with a quite eclectic cast. Although he doesn’t get that much screen time and actually (as he did many times) just plays a variation of his own eccentric public persona, a Curd Jürgens performance again proves to be instantly entertaining. His Duncan Ely exudes all the grandeur and subtle flamboyance we grew to expect from the German actor and he is always fun to watch him, may he be reciting Satanic chants in French (!) or piano rage-playing. Alan Alda is solid, but sadly doesn’t really get that much to chew on, as his character gradually moves into the background as the plot is progressing. So it’s mostly up to the timelessly beautiful Bisset (and, to a lesser degree, the equally striking Parkins) to carry the movie and she does it gracefully and convincingly. It certainly also helped that the actors had some surprisingly good dialogue to work with.
And then, of course, there is the ominous, playful and inventive score by the always great Jerry Goldsmith.
The Mephisto Waltz is probably not a must, but still an atmospheric, stylish and amusing horror movie gem, that, while it doesn’t revel in gore and nudity, should entertain all those who love the 1970s “Satanic Panic” subgenre.
More Satanic Panic? Read IAB’s review of Race with the Devil (1975)!
The Church (La Chiesa) aka Demon Cathedral (1989)
directed by Michele Soavi
Evan (Thomas Arana) has been appointed to be the librarian of a Gothic Cathedral in an unnamed German city. He is instantly fascinated by the elaborate architectural structure of the building, which includes a subterranean maze, through which the young daughter of the Sacristan, Lotte (Asia Argento) frequently sneaks out to party with friends at the local disco at night. Together with restorator Lisa (Barbara Cupisti) Evan uncovers a secret room with a massive cross adorned with a seal laid into the floor.
When Evan forcefully removes that seal, we, the audience, already suspect that this won’t end well, because via prologue we had learned that this church was built on the mass grave of villagers that were slaughtered by Teutonic Knights who accused them of devil worship. And indeed, invisible demons are emerging from the opening under the seal and one of them possesses Evan. On the next day, the sacristan discovers the secret room and makes things even worse by accidentally hitting a lever that activates an ancient security mechanism which turns the church into a sealed fortress. Now all the people trapped inside, from the priests to a coincidentally present wedding party, are practically just waiting to be devoured by the demons, who are “transmitted” via physical contact.
It’s more evident in the alternate titles Demon Cathedral and Cathedral of Demons, but The Church is actually, while not directly connected to its predecessors, the third part in the infamous Demons series that started with Lamberto Bava’s Demons in 1985. Again the Italian maestro Dario Argento was involved as producer and co-writer and managed to shove his daughter into the cast (she already had a part in Demons 2). But as I mentioned above, the connections to the first two parts are limited to a few shared motives and plot traits. The demon lore is practically the same, but this time it’s tied to Christian mythology in some ways, with the main demon being modelled after the classic depiction of Baphomet for example (see pic), which makes sense considering the setting. Another similarity would be the scenario of people trapped in a building infested with demons, although here it takes half of the running time to set up the situation.
Otherwise, it’s not really a follow-up, there are no indications that the plot is set in the same continuity as Part 1 & 2. It’s pretty much its own entity, something director Soavi was insisting on. At this point, Soavi was close to cut ties with his legendary mentor to realize more of his own ideas. He and Argento collaborated one more time, namely on the very entertaining The Sect (1991), but they subsequently separated and Soavi went on to direct Dellamorte Dellamore (1994), a movie that differed a lot from his preceding works and would have been impossible to make the way it is under the patronage of the Giallo-maestro, at least according to Soavi (source: this interview in German language).
All that hoopla aside, I can assure you that The Church definitely qualifies as a worthy sequel that is very entertaining in its own right. Lamberto Bava is a good director, but Soavi is no slouch either and proves again that he can class up a B-movie with some grade-A craftsmanship. As it is obligatory for an Argento production, the visuals, indulging in the Gothic-ness of the fantastic set design, are splendid, apart from the occasional beige tint of the lighting during the daylight scenes, an ugly trait that’s so characteristic for the movies of the late 80s and early 90s.
No reasons for complaint are given when it comes to gore and monster-FX either, people are impaled, squashed or in one very gruesome scene, smashed by a subway train. Given the genre, the acting is solid and Asia Argento was surprisingly one of the less annoying kid actors. Fun fact: One of the priests is played by Hugh Quarshie, famous for his portrayal of the most important side character of the Star Wars universe, namely Captain Panaka from Episode I.
One thing that did hurt the movie a little in my eyes is the fact that the last third of the movie is somewhat weaker and less coherent than what came before. Usually I don’t mind the sometimes intended, sometimes unintended trippyness of certain Italian horror films, but the buildup of the first hour is so strong and intriguing that the undoubtedly beautiful, but slightly disjointed flood of borderline surreal images in the last act feels like a jarring departure and ultimately a letdown. Some plot threads just peter out and the fate of a few characters remain a mystery, it’s as if the filmmakers had a hard time to wrap things up.
Nonetheless, the positives still outweigh the negatives and render The Church a slightly flawed masterpiece from the Spaghetti horror vault.
You crave for more Italian weirdness? Check out my review of Delirium.