This horror opus from Italy’s talented Michele Soavi is long winded, incoherent and overly derivative of the films of its producer and co-writer Dario Argento, but excels nonetheless in arrestingly grotesque, hallucinatory imagery.
Michele Soavi began his career as an actor (in films like Lucio Fulci’s CITY OF THE WALKING DEAD and Lamberto Bava’s DEMONS) and assistant director (on Dario Argento’s PHENOMENA and Terry Gilliam’s THE ADVENTURES OF BARON MUNCHAUSEN, among others) before making his impressive directorial debut with STAGE FRIGHT in 1997. That film was overseen by the exploitation maestro Joe D’Amato, while Soavi’s subsequent directorial efforts THE CHURCH (1988) and THE SECT (1990) were made under the tutelage of Dario Argento, who produced both and contributed heavily to the respective screenplays. This explains why THE SECT (actually LA SETTA, retitled THE DEVIL’S DAUGHTER in the US) looks and feels so much like an Argento project.
Soavi’s next project was 1994’s non-Argento affiliated DELLAMORTE DELLAMORE, a.k.a. CEMETERY MAN, which showed this unique talent finally coming into his own. In subsequent years Soavi has worked largely outside the genre, in the Italian television arena, where, he claims, “I feel really free because for so long I was so closely tied in with Dario.”
Miriam is an innocent young woman (of the type familiar to viewers of Dario Argento’s SUSPIRIA or INFERNO) who finds her life turned upside down when she nearly runs down a creepy old man on a mountain road. She takes the guy back to her home nearby—a bad idea, it turns out, as he’s the leader of a Satan-worshipping sect looking to overthrow God. The old guy lets loose a scarab that crawls up Miriam’s nose while she sleeps, and then he promptly disappears down a deep well under Miriam’s house. He leaves behind a cloth bearing an imprint of his face, and when a friend of Miriam’s uses the cloth to wipe her mouth it causes her to become demonically possessed, in which state she goes on a sex rampage and eventually commits suicide.
Miriam becomes ensnared in a series of freaky occurrences, including a nightmarish vision of blue worms emanating from her kitchen faucet. Eventually the old man who set everything in motion shows up again, along with members of his sect, who chain Miriam up so she can be raped by a large bird(!) before lowering her into the well underneath her house, where she gives birth to the child who will be the sect’s “revenge on God”. Luckily Miriam still has her wits about her and facilitates an escape from her evil captors, leading to an inevitable chase.
As anyone who’s seen any of his four features well knows, Michele Soavi is a master at concocting horrific images, and THE SECT contains some of his most fearful sights. Most of those sights don’t show up until well into the second half of the film (which runs a full two hours), but they’re worth waiting for: the lead actress Kelly Curtis (sister of Jamie Lee) dropping her keys into a pool containing a corpse; a woman getting her face literally ripped from her head in a bizarre satanic ritual; a large bird ravishing Curtis while devouring maggots emanating from a hole in her neck; Curtis, half submerged at the bottom of a well, giving birth while surrounded by swimming sect members. Of course, such things have little to no bearing on the overall storyline—or at least what passes for one.
But then there’s the unavoidable issue of Dario Argento’s influence, which was evidently considerable. Argento’s fingerprints are all over the film, from the dreamlike narrative to the flamboyant, even show-offy steadicam visuals. The narrative plays like that of Argento’s INFERNO, being a largely nonlinear collection of images that never quite coalesque into a satisfying whole. Michele Soavi’s considerable talents are evident throughout THE SECT, but he had yet to fully emerge from Dario Argento’s shadow.
THE SECT (LA SETTA; THE DEVIL’S DAUGHTER)
Mario & Vittorio Cecchi Gori-Silvio Berlusconi Communications
Director: Michele Soavi
Producers: Mario & Vittorio Cecchi Gori, Dario Argento
Screenplay: Dario Argento, Giovanni Romoli, Michele Soavi
Cinematography: Raffaele Mertes
Editing: Franco Fraticelli
Cast: Kelly Curtis, Herbert Lom, Mariangela Giordano, Michel Adatte, Carla Cassola, Angelika Maria Boeck, Giovanni Lombardo Radice, Niels Gullov, Tomas Arana, Donald O’Brian, Yasmine Ussani, Paolo Pranzo, Richard Sammel, Ralph Bola Mustapha, Erika Sinisi, Dario Casalini