The sudden bankruptcy that shut down Empire Films at the end of the ’80s was as rough on the filmmakers as it was on the studio because it left a lot of produced films in post-production limbo. Catacombs was one such film: it sat on the shelf for about five years before finally debuting on home video, retitled as Curse IV: The Ultimate Sacrifice. Like a lot of Empire productions, it’s a slickly-produced combination of the familiar and the eccentric.
Catacombs is set in a monastery with a history. A prologue establishes that a few hundred years ago, a priest and several monks entombed a powerful possessed man alive. In the present day, the monastery has become a peaceful place. Its sense of order is disturbed when schoolteacher Elizabeth (Laura Schaefer) is invited by the enlightened Brother Orsini (Ian Abercrombie), much to the dismay of the dogmatic Brother Marinus (Jeremy West). This coincides with the reawakening of the spirit of the possessed man, who quickly begins bumping off monks. The one hope for containing this evil likes in Father John Durham (Timothy Van Patten), the archetypal priest questioning his religion.
Catacombs is interesting because of its oddness: despite its ghost story elements and demonic possession/attack elements, a lot of the film is a quiet, earnest drama devoted to the nature of faith and the dangers of subscribing to religious dogma. Unfortunately, it’s also a bit too leisurely and light on plot until its final half-hour… and at that point, it reverts to some clichés lifted directly from The Exorcist. There’s also a few dangling plot threads, like a subplot with a clairvoyant village girl that goes nowhere.
However, Catacombs has some elements that might appeal to the patient horror fan. As usual with an Empire production, the tech credits are impressive: Giovanni Natalucci’s monastery sets are artfully crafted, the photography by Fulci cameraman Sergio Salvati aids the mood and Pino Donaggio contributes a pulse-pounding, choral-tinged musical score. There are also a few fascinatingly odd moments, like a dying priest who muses about what sex might be like or a scene where the demon takes the form of Christ coming down from a cross to kill one of the monks(!).
In short, Catacombs is a mixed bag but it’s odd enough that Empire completists might want to see it once. That said, don’t expect the replay value of Schmoeller’s other films.
Blu-Ray Notes: This title was recently issued by Scream Factory on a double-bill blu-ray with Cellar Dweller. It sports a nice transfer that does well by the film’s mix of shadowy interiors and colorful outdoor scenes. The 2.0 DTS-HD offers a basic but sturdy mix that adds a little heft to Pino Donaggio’s choral-tinged score. The one extra for this title is a commentary track with director David Schmoeller. He goes into plentiful detail about the motivations behind the writing and rewriting of particular scenes, provides a nice overview of working in Italy and discusses his struggle to salvage the film from Empire’s sudden collapse.