Thursday, October 21, 2021

The Devil Goes to The Church

The Church
The Church (2018)

I’ve been writing this blog about churches in movies for nearly seven years, and part of the process is, of course, finding films to write about. Often, I go to IMDb or Amazon movies and search for “church.” One of the top choices since the beginning has been 1989’s The Church. It’s a horror film from the Italian horror master Dario Argento. (Although, Dario didn’t direct this time; he just has a producer and “Story by” credit.)

The film was an obvious pick for movie churches with that title, so I bought a DVD of the film over a year ago. Then last Father’s Day, one of my daughters bought me a DVD of The Church. I thought I’d need to return one of the films -- until I realized my daughter had found a completely different horror film called The Church which was made in 2018.

And now (finally!) I have a suitable time to take a look at both films with this month's theme of "Devil Churches," and will be able to ignore them in my future Google searches.

The 1989 film The Church, directed by Michele Soavi, opens in medieval Germany. A band of knights led by a monk (I believe, but it could be a priest) finds a couple of women and a child hiding in a cave. The monk questions the women about whether they are witches. A knight kills one of the women, and the priest finds a cross cut into the skin on the sole of her foot, which he claims was a sign that she was a witch in league with Satan.

The monk (or priest or guy in a brown robe with a cross) tells the knights to kill every man, woman, child, and animal in the village. They do, bury the whole lot, and build a cathedral over the bodies. That cathedral is the church of the film’s title.

In modern day, we meet a church librarian, Evan (Thomas Arana) arriving late on his first day of work at the cathedral. He's there to catalog the books and papers, and he meets the cranky old Bishop (Feodor Chaliapin); a kindly young priest, Gus (Hugh Quarshie); and a pretty artist, Lisa (Barbara Cupisti), who is there to refurbish the frescos in the sanctuary.

We do hear the bishop preaching, not surprisingly (considering the genre), on the demon-possessed man that Jesus heals in Luke 8. The bishop likes to talk about demons and Satan a lot. 

As the priests dine together, the bishop tells one of the priests, “I have a quote for your sermon, ‘The world is the devil’s.’” 

That priest then asks Father Gus, “Could you suggest a quote for the sermon?” (This is odd because to give a quote for a sermon, it would be helpful to know what the sermon is about. I think Gus should have said, “Did you use the one about the footprints in the sand?”)

Meanwhile, Evan discovers an old parchment that appears to be an architect’s schematics for the building. With the help of Lisa, he finds a reference to a “stone with seven eyes.” Evan finds the stone embedded in a seal on a cross in a hidden crypt. He pries out the stone, which unleashes a blue light and all kinds of supernatural nastiness.

Soon people are trapped in the church, including a group of school children on a tour and a bridal party there for a photo shoot. Everyone begins to have nasty visions, many featuring demons. Evan goes a little nuts (Jack in The Shining style) and begins typing all sixes on a typewriter. One woman sees herself as old in a mirror and begins scratching at her face. Another woman imagines (?) herself being raped by a demon.

Gus goes to see the bishop about the unpleasantness, and the Cardinal seems to have some idea of what is going on. He says what is happening is not the devil’s work, but God’s. He says there is a great evil under the building, and God is keeping that evil from escaping (I would disagree with the bishop on some points here). Then the bishop says, “I am the church!” and dives from a great height in the church to his death.

Gus searches for the architect's records and finds a self-destruct mechanism to destroy the church. Fearing the evil in the church will spread, Gus trips off the mechanism to keep the evil from escaping outside the church. So the evil is ended. Or is it? (As is pondered at the end of most films like this.)

The other film called The Church (2018) has a subtitle: No Refuge for the Wicked. The filmmakers seem to have tried to make a PG-13 horror film, but the acting and production values feel very much like a low-budget Christian film. It's odd.

The film opens with Scripture, I Corinthians 3: 17 “If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him. For God’s temple is holy…” (I found it quite interesting they left off the rest of that verse, “and you, together, are that temple.”)

The film opens in a bar where some locals are complaining about the local church and its pastor. It seems developers are looking to buy up all the local properties but the plans are at a standstill because the pastor won’t sell.

We then see the offices of the Lawson Corporation where father and son Lawson are discussing Big Business. Father Lawson is worrying about not yet being able to buy the church which is slowing down their Big Business plans. But the son, Ron (Matthew Nadu), promises his dad that he’ll take care of everything.“I’m putting a squeeze on the pastor, I’m doing everything I can short of extortion.”

Meanwhile, Pastor James (Bill Moseley) and his wife, Loretta (Michelle Romano), are discussing selling the building. The wife is all for it, but the pastor says, “It’s not just a church, it’s our family legacy.” (This is a strange thing I've found in films and TV but I haven’t found in life, churches passed down generation to generation. In this movie, the building also seems to be part of the family heritage). Joan complains that people are “migrating from churches like ours to megachurches. All our money is going to repairs.” 

“That’s why we have a building fund,” the Pastor responds.

Maria (Belinda M. Wilson) approaches the couple to say, “Everything is clean and ready for the service. Do we need anything else?” The worship service begins immediately after that (I would be concerned about the way Maria seems to do her janitorial duties at the last possible moment.)

The service is poorly attended, but Ron Lawson is there (though a little late). After the service, he shakes the pastor’s hand and says, “Amazing sermon. I’m Ron Lawson and this is my beautiful assistant.” He then goes into a sales pitch promising to build a new church at a different location with “heating and other amenities” such as megascreens. And Ron gives the pastor the plans for this new church along with envelopes full of cash.

The pastor at first seems concerned about the bribe, but his wife assures him he deserves it for all of his hard work. Then he’s okay with it.

The pastor is not the only one receiving bribe money. Various committee members also receive promises of a cut of the profits. We see one committee enjoying their wads of cash. The name of this committee is one I have never heard before, the Stewardesses. (Maybe it’s a variation of Stewards, but it’s still odd.) The Stewardesses worry “we’ll never get the Deacons, they’re led by a real Old Testament type.”

The church committees meet together to vote on whether to sell the church. All the various boards are sent off to vote, and the pastor encourages them to “Follow your conscience and pray before you vote.” Many are obviously following their pocketbooks.

Loretta counts the votes and writes down each committee's tally -- then changes the figures. The major investors from Lawson Corp come for the event, and the vote is very close. The final committee vote is read, and the committees have voted to sell the church by one vote.

Then very strange things take place. The doors close and lock everyone inside. Stained glass shatters. Strange sounds and sights frighten all.

Someone comes across an old newspaper clipping with the headline, “Church Burns Wicked Immigrant Family.” (They don’t write headlines like that anymore. Well, maybe New York Post, but besides that…)

One of the men from Lawson Corp is from Romania, and he says everything going on reminds him of a family legend. He says, “If the leaders of the church are not pure, then the church engulfs their spirits until they become pure.” Pastor James assures everyone that his being the pastor shows he is pure. (As a pastor, I must say I have rarely been in any grouping of a congregation when I was the purest in the room.)

Things go from bad to worse, as the pastor's wife and others are transported to another dimension. Fog and smoke and fire engulf the sanctuary. There was an icon of an unknown saint in the front of the sanctuary. That icon comes to life in the form of a ghostly Clint Howard dressed in ecclesiastic vestments.

But then we find (Spoilers) that it was all a dream (or vision)! Pastor James is again standing before the committees about to announce the vote. But he fudges the count so that the church won’t be sold. God apparently honors the pastor’s dishonesty, since we then see a well attended service and the church appears to be prospering.

But Ron Lawson is off to buy up another church property with unfortunate results anticipated.

One of the first Sunday School lessons I remember from my childhood was “The church isn’t a building, the church is people.” Both of these films seem to teach that the church is the building and a deadly, killer structure at that. That’s why the churches in both films (along with the majority of the clergy) receive our lowest Movie Churches rating of One Steeple.

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