Directed by Camilo Vila. Starring Ben Cross, Hal Holbrook, Jill Carroll, William Russ, Ned Beatty, Trevor Howard. Horror, USA, 102 mins, cert 18.
Released in the UK on Blu-ray by Lionsgate on 25th February 2019.
Released as part of the latest batch of Blu-ray titles on Lionsgate's Vestron Collector's Series, THE UNHOLY is a late '80s attempt to replicate the faith-testing religious terrors of THE EXORCIST but with a (then) contemporary sensibility, i.e. throw in some gloopy gore and gratuitous nudity. Does it work? Well, sort of but much like a lot of what came in the wake of William Friedkin’s classic you have to wait to get to the good stuff and, depending on your tolerance for movies trying to be arty and mysterious when all it really needs is a good throat-ripping to move things along, THE UNHOLY tries very hard to make you care about what is happening when it is quite clear that nobody really has a clue.
Well, there is a plot somewhere in there and it revolves around Father Michael (Ben Cross – PAPERHOUSE), a priest who is pushed out of a window several floors up and survives the fall without a scratch. His boss Archbishop Mosely (Hal Holbrook – CREEPSHOW) is mightily impressed and decides that Father Michael should take over the parish of St. Agnes, the church of which has been closed for three years since the death of Father Dennis who was killed on the altar by a seductive semi-naked demon (but no one tells Father Michael that little detail). Naturally, Father Michael arrives and is immediately filled in on all the grisly details of the unsolved case by Lieutenant Stern (Ned Beatty – DELIVERANCE) and weird things start to happen, mostly involving a waitress called Millie (Jill Carroll – PSYCHO II) and a satanic magician called Luke (William Russ – AMERICAN HISTORY X).
How Millie and Luke are connected to Father Michael’s church is flimsy at best and feels like a possible rewrite or even an afterthought because the main thrust of the movie is the final 15 minutes where all of the plot details that got us to that point seem to melt away to allow the final confrontation between Father Michael and the previously mentioned demon – now not a sultry semi-naked red head but a slimy Lovecraftian creature – to play out in a way not too dissimilar to EXORCIST III which came a couple of years after this, but in that film there was connective tissue to other events that made the climax feel justified whereas in THE UNHOLY it just sort of happens and wipes away everything you’ve seen up until that point. In any other film that could be a bad thing but luckily here it seems to work because the final battle is where THE UNHOLY finds its feet and goes completely mental with demonic dwarves and all manner of monsters running amok as Father Michael tries to send them all back to Hell.
Despite its many tonal flaws there is a lot to like about THE UNHOLY, not least the solid performances from all the cast. Ben Cross carries the film as the put-upon Father Michael and gives the whole thing a sense of weight and authenticity, which is quite an achievement when you have actors like Hal Holbrook, Ned Beatty and Trevor Howard in your supporting cast. William Russ and Jill Carroll are less effective but their characters’ involvement turns out not to be as important as the first hour of the film would have you believe.
Yet again Red Shirt Pictures have come up with some fantastic extras to support this release, namely an audio commentary with director Camilo Vila, audio interviews with production designer and co-writer Fernando Fonseca and composer Roger Bellon, plus a video interview with Fernando Fonseca along with the original ending of the film, trailers and radio spots. But the real gems are interviews with Ben Cross, who has nothing but good things to say about the production (despite obviously being diplomatic about some of the issues regarding the special effects) and is very honest about his feelings towards being in a horror movie of this type, and also a featurette discussing the creatures effects used in the film, featuring interviews with effects artist Jerry Macaluso and the team that replaced his creations during reshoots. The story goes that Macaluso was a teenager when he was hired to do the effects for THE UNHOLY and basically found himself out of his depth when it came to the final creature design – hence the original ending that is included on the disc (and was rightfully reshot) – and so found his creations replaced by those that ended up in the final movie designed by Bob Keen (HELLRAISER) and his crew. It is a fascinating interview that gives a little insight into movie making and seeing Macaluso humbly admit he wasn’t up to the job is surprisingly refreshing.
Overall, THE UNHOLY isn’t quite the sex-and-religion trash-fest it could (and probably should) have been, nor is it the surreal arthouse commentary on religion that it tries to be on occasion and ultimately it falls somewhere in the middle. Tonally it is all over the place and just when things start to get interesting, as in somebody is getting gutted and hung upside down on a cross or the semi-naked demon turns up to rip throats out, the film goes off in weird directions, flashing up subliminal imagery and trying to be THE EXORCIST but not really having the same effect. Nevertheless, stick with it and the rewards are there to be had in that final 15 minutes, and once you check out the special features and get the full context of the film and the production then it all makes a lot more sense. THE UNHOLY is not a 1980s classic by any means but is certainly a film worth checking out (or rediscovering), especially if THE EXORCIST knock-offs are your thing as this is not the worst offender by a long shot.