Directed by David Schmoeller. Screenplay by Schmoeller & R. Barker Price.
Starring Timothy Van Patten, Ian Abercrombie, Jeremy West, Laura Schaefer, Vernon Dobtcheff, Feodor Chaliapin Jr., Brett Porter, & Michael Pasby.
Rated R / 84 minutes
Religious horror is a sub-genre unto itself, including the greats such as William Friedkin’s The Exorcist, cult classics like Alice, Sweet Alice, underrated gems The Prophecy and Ken Russell’s The Devils, plus plenty more. There are many great works of horror that evoke religion’s influence, just like there are just as many, if not more, that don’t use it enough to their advantage to make a good / memorable film.
1988’s Catacombs looks like one of those typical horror flicks you would’ve seen as a kid at the video store with a gnarly poster. It was actually renamed Curse IV: The Ultimate Sacrifice because the intended distributor for the film went out of business so the producers tried to capitalise on the Curse series. Not the film you’d expect to have a fresh take on religious horror. Fact is, director and co-writer David Schmoeller’s film has something to say about the oppressive nature of religion, particularly the Roman Catholic Church’s treatment of women and sex.
The story concerns Elizabeth Magrino (Laura Schaefer). She’s a young student who’s arrived at a medieval abbey to study. While Brother Orsini (Ian Abercrombie) and other monks welcome Elizabeth her presence doesn’t sit well with Brother Marinus (Jeremy West), a strict monk with an intolerance for both women and perceived sin. The more Elizabeth digs into the abbey’s history, the more terrifying secrets she uncovers. She and most of the monks have no idea that below the abbey in its catacombs is trapped a demon, locked away 400 years ago by monks. And now the demon’s getting loose.
If the church isn’t able to control / destroy something, it oppresses, locks it away, represses it— all in the vain hope this opposed thing will disappear. Catacombs explores this using a clever Gothic Christian horror setup. The plot concerns the locking away of a vengeful demon, paralleling the repression of desire and sexuality by the Roman Catholic Church. The film goes on to present dual ways a person could potentially be possessed: literally, by way of a demonic presence, and figuratively, by the Word of God.
Though neither way proves safe for those who fall under such influences.
A significant distinction is made in the screenplay between those who take Christian scripture as a set of parables by which to figuratively guide your life and those who take scripture literally. Brother Orsini’s actually a more metaphorical Christian. He takes the stories from scripture more so as allegories that the Christian worshipper can use in their life to live with conviction. However, Brother Marinus is a radical, fundamentalist Christian. He’s a stickler for decorum— the joy of laughter bothers him, and he sees tea as “a luxury” ill-suited for monks. He’s a far cry from Brother Timothy (Vernon Dobtcheff) cutting up a Snickers bar while reciting Psalm 140.
While Brother Marinus sees the smallest sins, and would condemn even the most ardent monks for them, Brother Timothy says: “The devil can touch you and leave his mark, just so long as he doesn‘t steal your soul.” He’s essentially giving us an anti-Christian fundamentalist statement in contrast with Brother Marinus’s views. Brother Timothy recognises that one doesn’t have to be perfect to be holy or pious because nobody’s without their own sin, big or small. And it’s the divide between Brother Marinus and the others that also draws parallels between him and Elizabeth when she’s possessed by the demon’s influence. Elizabeth becomes physically possessed by a demon, whereas Brother Marinus can be seen as possessed by the Word of God and all those repressed urges/superstitious lore of the Church that come out after Elizabeth’s arrival.
The demon’s also part of a theme in Catacombs about questioning faith. The room to question faith within an abbey is not what you’d call totally flexible, especially when confronted with a monk like Brother Marinus with his near fascist reliance on the Word of God. In the film, Father John Durham (Timothy Van Patten) is the character who’s questioning faith, and his talks with the dying Brother Terrel (Feodor Chaliapin Jr) seem to give him more reason to keep questioning. What’s more is that the longer Father John questions his faith the stronger the demon grows, feeding off doubt as much as desire.
“Evil, thy will be contained.”
Brother Terrel’s talk about sex is about more than repressed desire, it speaks to the idea of sexual intercourse as a form of spiritual experience. This breaks him away as a monk from another such as Brother Marinus, likewise separating him from Western Christianity which regards sex as only about reproduction or otherwise sinful. Although Brother Terrel talks about desire and sex in a way that seems to go against the Church, his relation of sex to a spiritual experience feels like he’s closer to a truer form of religion than anyone else in that abbey, or the Roman Catholic Church for that matter. In a way, he’s haunted by the spectre of sex, locked away in an abbey above Gothic catacombs. He tells Father John sex is “a state of euphoria.” But the most spiritual descriptions are intriguingly similar to the concept of the Holy Trinity, when he says sex is like becoming “one undulating, connected body . . . one body, one mind, one soul.” Brother Terrel’s recounting of a former sex life also echoes the act of communion when he references “the body and the blood,” conjuring the image of sex as a bodily sacrament.
From the simple repressed desires of someone like Brother Marinus, who won’t even have a cup of a tea, to the evidence of sexual repression we see in the scenes between Father John and Brother Terrel, the demon locked in the catacombs is symbolic of repression under the Roman Catholic Church. This makes it more obvious that once the demon begins to break the seal on its tomb, its freedom from those chains begins to let loose the repression in that abbey, as well as sets Brother Marinus on the path of his own individual mini-Inquisition. There’s further significance in the fact that Elizabeth becomes possessed herself, as Brother Marinus already sees a woman at the abbey as a harbinger of bad things to come. At one point he literally proclaims: “Evil, thy name is woman.” The misogyny of Catholicism— a confused religion at once worshipping the Virgin Mary and simultaneously blaming Eve— emerges via Brother Marinus and allegorically through Elizabeth’s possession. Yet it’s not the fundamentalist monk who saves the day, rather those who aren’t gripped in the iron fist of the Church.Part of Father Son Holy Gore’s mission statement, if you will, as a site dedicated to film and TV is ultimately not to be concerned with writing strictly is it good or is it bad criticism. There are star ratings just because certain readers like seeing that quantifiable rating, apart from the actual essay or article. Otherwise the site’s writing focuses on critical theory, looking into the thematic elements and symbolism a film offers, regardless if it’s great or abysmal. Catacombs isn’t fantastic. It suffers from occasional hammy acting and bad writing. Overall, the themes and symbolic imagery make for something more than an entirely throwaway ’80s horror about demonic possession.
The Catholic Church since time immemorial has been an oppressive, misogynistic, and utterly cruel seat of power. Catacombs packs its runtime with a dose of Gothic religious history, beginning with the possessed monk in 1506 just prior to the Roman Inquisition, part of the greater Catholic Inquisition. Making use of that horrific history in combination with the arrival of a young woman coming to a repressed abbey is a perfect way to bridge past and present. There’s a lot of cheesiness to Catacombs, though underneath are intense issues about religion that will surprise anybody who picks this one up just for the cover.