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Directed by David Schmoeller (Tourist Trap, Puppet Master), Catacombs was the last film completed by Charles Band’s highly influential, yet somehow still defunct, Empire Pictures line. In the film, an ancient evil is locked away in the catacombs of a secluded monastery, only to awaken almost 500 years later (in modern times) when a young American teacher (Laura Schaefer , who also appeared in Empire’s Ghost Town the same year) comes to study. What she’s studying is not important.
Invited to the Abbey of St. Peter by the kind-hearted and progressively minded Brother Orsini (Ian Abercrombie – Army of Darkness, Puppet Master III), the monastery’s Brother Superior, American teacher Elizabeth is welcomed by some, but immediately ostracized by other members of the brotherhood. This sentiment of repulsion is led by Brother Marinus (Jeremy West –Ice Pirates, The Howling IV), whose “fire and damnation” ideology compels him to believe that women are instruments of evil. There are countless ex-husbands inclined to agree with him.
Catacombs wastes no time unleashing its evil presence, with the first signs of resurrection occurring the moment Elizabeth enters the abbey. The film then jumps to an amusing scene featuring the kindly, yet none-too-bright Brother Timothy’s (Vernon Dobtcheff – The Spy Who Loved Me, Condorman) excitement at having purchased a skull alleged to have “once belonged” to a Pope. Granted, another Brother has the same Pope’s skull already, but Timothy’s skull is from the Pope at a younger age. Score!
This is followed with an introduction to Father Durham (Timothy Van Patten – Class of 1984, Zone Troopers), a young priest assigned to watch over an elderly Brother who is on his death-bed. The task leads Durham to angst over his own acceptance of death, which in turn makes him question the strength of his faith. The viewer may also be experiencing some angst of their own as the tone of the film is already wildly inconsistent even in these early stages.
Now released, the evil begins to kill off the members of the brotherhood in notably bloodless fashion. What is of note here is that while the evil force is shown in a human form in the film’s opening, it is usually represented as an invisible presence while claiming its victims, although it does once take the form of a statue of Jesus. While this approach helps keep the film grounded in supernatural and religious horror, it also strips the film of some much needed “umph”.
The growing number of “incidents” further Brother Marinus’s convictions, which he uses to build the fervor of the brothers inclined towards his beliefs. Meanwhile, the brothers that disagree with his beliefs seem blissfully ignorant of most of the sinister occurrences.
In many ways, I feel like I’m about to rewrite my prior review for Schmoeller’s The Unwelcomed. Much like that film, Catacombs starts off with a handful of good ideas and a ton of promise. Yet, much like The Unwelcomed, the film spends most of its run time juggling a variety of undeveloped concepts. It ultimately fails to deliver anything of substance, leaving behind more questions than answers. As the script was reportedly rewritten throughout the shoot, there’s a definite feeling of “creative interference”.
The film is undeniably a “slow-burner”, but the final act fails to “ignite”. There is also more than a little room for argument that the conclusion is simplistically sexist, although not to a noteworthy degree. The performances are generally solid, although I found Van Patten’s “Durham” to be a little tiresome. This is due solely to the personality of the character and not through any fault of Van Patten’s. That said, he’s still over-shadowed by the older actors.
What Catacombs lacks in substance is more than made up for in style. Beautifully shot by Director of Photography Sergio Salvati, who also handled the cinematography for Lucio Fulci’s Zombie and “Gates” Trilogy, more than half of the film was shot on location at an actual Italian monastery, which not only adds a sense of “realism” to the experience, but also dazzles the viewer with its gorgeous stone foundation and old-world design. Catacombs also features a fantastic score from legendary composer Pino Donnagio (Carrie, Tourist Trap).
Filming for Catacombs wrapped in 1988. However, in what can be called an “unfortunate series of events”(depending on your opinion of the film), the movie was seized as collateral by a French bank when “somebody” at Empire Pictures forgot to pay off some loans. The film then sat on the shelf for 5 long years before it was finally re-titled and released by Columbia Tri-Star Home Video as the fourth film in the “these movies have nothing to do with each other” Curse franchise under the subtitle of “The Ultimate Sacrifice”. Despite now being the 3rd sequel in the series, there’s some humor in knowing that it was actually made before the first film in the series.
Catacombs scores more than a few points for its beautiful scenery, brilliant camerawork, and enchanting scores. And that, my friends, is unfortunately all the praise that I can give it. Otherwise, the film is unforgivably dull, leaving the viewer feeling like they were intended to witness much more. The “Ultimate Sacrifice” here is the 85 minutes I spent watching it.