The Sect (Italy, 1991)
It doesn’t really feel like the October Horror Movie Challenge until I watch an Italian classic. While The Sect was made just after what I would consider to be the golden age of Italian horror, it still feels very much of that era.
From the 1960s to the ’80s, Italy was producing some of the weirdest, bloodiest films ever committed to celluloid. Don’t get me wrong — there were plenty of stinkers — but even the bad ones often had that peculiarly Italian variety of endearing insanity. I know saying “They just don’t make ’em like this anymore” makes me sound like the old fart I am, but they really don’t.
Like a lot of its peers, The Sect is known under many names. Its original Italian titles is La Setta, and it received a wide release under the English name The Devil’s Daughter. But I watched it as The Sect, so that is what I shall call it.
The Sect is currently available on Shudder in the UK.
After a couple of vignettes in which a wanderer wipes out a Californian hippie commune in the early 1970s, and a Satanist in 1990s Frankfurt murders a woman, cutting out her heart only to have it pickpocketed on the U-Bahn, we eventually meet our protagonist and begin the film in earnest.
Miriam is a kindergarten teacher in small-town Germany. After she accidentally runs into an old man while driving, she offers to put him up for the night. He repays her by sticking a beetle up her nose while she is asleep, contaminating the subterranean water supply that runs under the hidden basement Miriam never knew she had, and faking his own death. Some house guests are just the worst!
As the narrative unfolds, we learn that Satanists are conspiring to bring the Antichrist into the world, and Miriam has long been a part of their plan. Will she be able to escape this terrible fate? Are beetles inherently Satanic? And why does the hell does the Devil manifest as a stork? Not all of these questions will be answered!
The Sect was directed by Michele Soavi, who gave us such treats as Dellamorte Dellamore (AKA Cemetery Man), The Church and Stage Fright. Dario Argento, who Soavi has worked with countless times, co-authored The Sect, and his influence is obvious at times. Hell, he even gets top billing on some posters for this film.
While Argento was part of my unholy pantheon of horror filmmakers when I was a teen, his later work has left me cold. There’s still some of the old visual flair, but nothing he’s directed in the last 30 years has ignited any passion in me. When I saw that The Sect dates from 1991, I feared the worst.
Happily, The Sect is filled with the lurid, nightmarish imagination I loved in Argento’s early work. Looking back at his filmography, this may be the last film he was involved with that I truly enjoyed.
Despite the titular sect being a Satanic one, Soavi and Argento manage to sneak some in Lovecraft. One of their rituals calls upon Shub-Niggurath, using an incantation straight out of “The Whisperer in Darkness”. It’s ultimately just an Easter egg, but a fun one.
There is an odd moment where the protagonist sings, accompanying herself on the piano. Given that she’s meant to be German, and a sympathetic character, having her sing “Tomorrow Belongs to Me” from Cabaret is a jarring choice.
I should also offer a content warning. In an odd parallel to Grave Robbers, which I reviewed a few days ago, the story involves an attempt to impregnate an unwilling woman with the Antichrist. Without getting into spoiler territory, this does involve a rape scene, but one that is so strange and surreal that it almost feels like something else.
The Sect is exactly what I was hoping for! Even though the premise of a Satanic cult ushering in the Antichrist is hardly original, Soavi and Argento bring enough imagination and sheer bloody surrealism to make it feel fresh. Some of the imagery and set pieces number amongst the strangest I’ve ever seen in a horror film, which goes a long way towards making up for what flaws The Sect does have.
I was particularly taken with the way demonic influence is presented in the form of contamination, whether through disease-ridden water or parasitic infection. It reminded me a little of Prince of Darkness in this respect, which is always a good thing.
The only real problem I had was how long the story took to get moving. Despite a few bloody murders in the opening scenes, the first half of the film could be tightened up considerably. Slow burn horror can be effective, but The Sect doesn’t really feel like the place for it. Happily, but the time we get to the final act, everything goes deliriously gonzo. And even when it’s at its slowest, Herbert Lom’s delightfully hammy performance keeps us engaged.
If you love the gory weirdness of classic Italian horror anywhere near as much as I do, The Sect is bound to be a good time.
The October Horror Movie Challenge
Please do join in and share your own thoughts with us about this or any other films as the month goes on. You can usually find us on Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, Discord, or lurking in the dark corners of your home.
If you would like to play along at home, my provisional selections are:
- Dark August (USA, 1976)
- Huesera: The Bone Woman (Mexico/Peru, 2022)
- The Banishing (UK, 2020)
- Brooklyn 45 (USA, 2023)
- Bloody Muscle Bodybuilder in Hell (Japan, 1995)
- Pyewacket (Canada, 2017)
- Grave Robbers (Mexico, 1989)
- You Might Be The Killer (USA, 2018)
- No One Will Save You (USA, 2023)
- The Sect (Italy, 1991)
- Last Night in Soho (UK, 2021)
- Errementari: The Blacksmith and the Devil (Spain, 2017)
- 47 Metres Down (UK/USA, 2017)
- The Oskars Fantasy (Philippines, 2022)
- In the Earth (UK, 2021)
- Something in the Dirt (USA, 2022)
- Blood Flower (Malaysia, 2023)
- Hello Mary Lou: Prom Night II (Canada, 1987)
- Older Gods (UK, 2023)
- Come to Daddy (New Zealand, 2020)
- Shrew’s Nest (Spain, 2014)
- Totally Killer (USA, 2023)
- The Premonition (USA, 1976)
- Murder Me, Monster (Argentina, 2018)
- The Gruesome Twosome (USA, 1967)
- Talk to Me (Australia, 2023)
- Gaia (South Africa, 2021)
- Demon (Poland, 2015)
- Juju Stories (Nigeria, 2022)
- El Conde (Chile, 2023)
- The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires (Hong Kong/UK, 1974)
A Final Note
If you have been enticed here by these posts, please do look around at some of our other film reviews. We also have a podcast, called The Good Friends of Jackson Elias, which occasionally covers horror films. If this appeals, you might want to check out some of the following episodes.
- The Night House
- The Changeling
- The Endless
- Our favourite Cthulhu Mythos media
- The Fly
- A Dark Song
- The Thing
- The Ritual
- The Wicker Man
- The Stone Tape
- Event Horizon
- The Witch
- INLAND EMPIRE
- Nightbreed and Lord of Illusions
- Maléfique and The Ninth Gate
- Re-Animator and From Beyond
- Repulsion and The Babdook
- Man Bites Dog, Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon and S&man
- A selection of weird films
- David Cronenberg
- The films that scared us most
If you dig through the archives, you will also find episodes about a wide variety of horror stories and games. Happy nightmares!