The Unholy (1988)
Studio: Vestron Video
Release date: June 27th, 2017
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
The Unholy is one of those movies that unfolds pretty routinely before tacking on an inspired third act that leaves you wishing the entire thing had been up to par. Originally conceived in the 70s as yet another rip-off of The Exorcist and The Omen, its script lingered around long enough for director Camilo Vila to dig it up years later, long after the Eurohorror scene had practically had its way with this sub-genre. By this point, you had better come strong or not even bother, and The Unholy limply tosses its hat into an already crowded ring. In doing so, it only proved that this particular cycle had run out of steam in spite of its director’s best efforts to make it feel like a big deal with impressive casting and spectacular effects work.
But what none of that really compensates for a pretty lackluster, rote plot and uninspired direction. On its face, The Unholy sounds like it should be nuts: it opens with a mysterious seductress (Nicole Fortier) ripping out a priest’s throat right at his altar, leaving him gushing blood and babbling an incoherent warning to Father Michael (Ben Cross), a young colleague left bewildered by the whole ordeal. Three years later, Michael is summoned to talk a suicidal man down from a ledge, only to have the potential jumper grab him by the arm and toss him out of the window. Remarkably, he’s unharmed despite falling 17 stories, a miracle that grabs the attention of a local bishop (Hal Holbrook), who assumes Michael must be the chosen one. As such, the young priest is tasked with reopening church where his fellow priest was slain; what’s more, the reopening coincides with looming Easter celebrations that will mark the 3-year-annivesrary of the slaying, and history begins to repeat itself as Michael is visited by strange visions and even stranger visitors to his church.
As Michael uncovers clues related to his predecessor’s slaying, intrigue mounts—theoretically, at least. The Unholy is a mystery but not one that’s exactly gripping, partly because it’s a bit too scatterbrained for its own good. Is it trying to be a grisly police procedural that sends an out-of-his-league priest trawling through seedy Satanic clubs? Or is it supposed to be a film where Michael battles a crisis of faith as he’s forced to ward off temptation in the form of Fortier’s demonic seductress and a local nightclub girl (Jill Carroll). It’s a bit better at the former, if only because it ticks off most of the requirements. As the latter, it stalls out because the Michael’s internal conflict feels virtually nonexistent. While he has to ward off these two (occasionally topless) girls on various occasion, he feels like something of a godly Superman type, a far cry from, say, Jason Miller’s nuanced, fallible Father Karras. Never for a second does it feel like Michael’s soul is ever in peril, nor do you particularly care since he’s such a stock character, meaning Cross is given precious little to do besides brood intensely.
Whenever Vila indulges the pulp, The Unholy springs to life a bit. Even though the plot is old hat, Vila’s riff on it includes some notable flourishes, like Ned Beatty popping up as a kindly detective. His rapport with Father Michael vaguely recalls Lee Cobb’s presence in The Exorcist, though I wish there were also more for him to do. William Russ also pops up as the owner of a local Satanic-theme cult, which plays against type in my head-canon, where he’ll always be the dad from Boy Meets World. That uncanny dissonance aside, it’s a fun turn that indicates Russ is one of the few people here that really senses the pulpy undercurrent guiding The Unholy, so he oozes sleaziness and menace through a thick N’awlins drawl. Another performer who decidedly gets it is Fournier, whose presence is striking in her fleeting appearances. Her sheer clothing draws your attention to obvious places, but her eyes hint at some delirious evil lurking within, just waiting to burst out and unleash some chaos on these otherwise dull proceedings.
Such instances are sparse but notable, thanks in large part to the terrific, gruesome effects work on display. If nothing else, The Unholy is another testament to the power of latex, rubber, and Karo syrup, as these scenes at least capture your attention in a way the rest of the film doesn’t. The opening throat-gashing is a garish display that offers some promise that this movie will at least provide these gory thrills. Unfortunately, it’s hesitant to fully realize that potential, as other bursts of violence are sprinkled in rather scarcely, with most of them occurring during the film’s last thirty minutes or so. Vila seems to be most invested in these sequences, where his camera suddenly swoops around with a manic energy, capturing ghoulish sights, such as a man who’s been flayed alive and crucified upside-down.
That image doubles as the starting gun for the film’s gnarly climax, which finds Father Michael facing off against the demon in its various forms. You sense that Vila is in a hurry to finally arrive at this point, as the film’s mystery is resolved in slapdash fashion—it turns out that Holbrook and his blind associate have known the truth this entire time, and they deliver the bad news to the young priest that he’s kind of destined to do battle with this unholy entity. It’s among the worst of Satan’s minions, but Michael shouldn’t worry too much since he can invoke the light of God, allowing himself to become possessed by Christ himself or some such nonsense. At any rate, it does make for quite a fine finale, with the demon taking on its final, rubbery form while fog swells throughout the church, enveloping the priest and his foe to make a striking image.
This is about as good as The Unholy gets, as Vila leans into purely visual filmmaking, summoning up frenzied lighting and Jigoku-esque montages of hell’s torments. If only the rest of the film could live up to this sort of potential instead of wasting just about everything, from its impressive cast to a New Orleans locale that’s rarely exploited. By the end, The Unholy feels less like an Exorcist rip-off and more like a half-hearted stab at cashing in on the previous year’s much superior Angel Heart. Either way, it’s ripping off something—and not in the most inspired fashion, either.
Of course, my particular disinterest in this title hasn’t stopped Lionsgate (via its Vestron label) from going all-out on a new Collector’s Edition Blu-ray. Originally dumped into one of those random horror DVD multipacks years ago, The Unholy has been plucked out for a proper release, where it’s been given a spiffy HD makeover and loaded down with brand-new supplements. Director Vila provides an audio commentary, while composer Roger Bellon gives an audio interview interspersed with an isolated score track. Production designer and co-writer Fernando Fonseca has also recorded an interview that plays alongside bits of his own unused score.
Three separate interview features (totaling over an hour) give an overview of the film’s production. In “Sins of the Father,” Cross reminisces on both his career and The Unholy, which he seems to be quite fond of (even if a scene did involve piling actual snakes on his junk), and nobody seems to be more surprised than he is that this Blu-ray even exists. “Demons in the Flesh” features a look at the film’s effects and creature designs, as the artists discuss their contributions alongside still behind-the-scenes images. Finally, Fonseca also provides an on-camera interview that bounces through various topics related to the production, from the screenwriting to its reception (he, too, is quite surprised and delighted about the Blu-ray release).
The film’s original ending is also provided (and in HD to boot!), and, while it certainly fits better tonally, the producers ultimately made the right call in going with the more over-the-top, spectacular finale that made its way to theaters. This alternate take is worthwhile, though, as it features an entirely different creature design and a coda that’s more satisfying than the abrupt theatrical ending. An assortment of storyboards, a stills gallery, trailers, TV, and radio spots fill out an impressive release for a film that’s been treated rather unceremoniously in the past. The Vestron branding provides an added layer of nostalgia, too, as it might evoke wistful memories for anyone who might have rented this one during the video store era. Even better, it won’t take these folks nearly as long to fast-forward to the killer ending—nor will they have to worry about rewinding fees. comments powered by Disqus Ratings: