The presence of a large special effects team pre the days of computer generated images (CGI) gives a derivative religious shocker about the ultimate showdown between good and evil a modest dose of much-needed respectability. Mark Fraser explains why.
Although the low budget end of Hollywood spat out a few satisfying additions to the horror genre during the 1980s, Camilo Vila’s The Unholy (1988) wasn’t one of them.
Looking back, it’s not difficult to pinpoint a few of the obvious problems with this movie. Aside from the fact its derivative script dissolves into layers of cliché, the cheesy (and sometimes violently schlocky) special effects are, on the whole, unsatisfying; all this while the gimmicky ethos underpinning the entire narrative is pretty much disposable.
Even those with a soft spot for the output of Menahen Golan and Yoram Globus – whose Cannon Productions established a definable aesthetic standard for alternative Hollywood in the eighties – may have some issues with Vila’s film, which tries to cash in on the age-old classic battle between good and evil, but somehow ends up drifting into the lower rent end of cinematic purgatory.
This is a pity as the movie shows a little promise during its first third – potential that is then squandered by an apparent unwillingness of scriptwriters Philip Yordan and Fernando Fonseca to run with their ball once it’s been picked up. In this regard Vila must also share some of the blame, with the director relying too heavily on jarring shocks to supply the thrills and some flashy editing to fill in the story gaps.
It all starts when Father Dennis (Ruben Rabasa), who is charge of the Catholic St Agnes parish in New Orleans, gets his throat ripped out at the church’s alter by a scantily clad demon (Nicole Fortier) – a scene which firmly suggests his drooling carnal desires do not include altar boys, but pert female boobies.
Enter Fr Michael (Ben Cross), a younger, fitter and better looking priest who, in a separate incident around three years later, is thrown out the 17th story window of a hotel by wannabe suicider Claude (Peter Frechette). As it turns out, the jumper (who doesn’t end up going through with it) is possessed by some kind of demon, while the man of the cloth emerges from his fall totally unscathed.
Naturally this attracts the interest of Archbishop Mosley (Hal Holbrook) and the blind demonologist Fr Silva (Trevor Howard in his last screen appearance). Putting two and two together, they decide Fr Michael is the chosen one to lead humankind’s fight against evil. When the younger cleric is told this a little later on, though, he seems less than keen to embrace the role – possibly because he doesn’t believe in the physical manifestation of Hell.
Nevertheless, Fr Michael is put in charge of St Agnes following its extended closure, although the church hierarchy doesn’t deem it necessary to fill him in on some of the finer details regarding his new temple’s bloody history.
Up until this moment The Unholy is chugging along in an acceptable manner. It all starts going to pot, however, when what becomes an unrequited love/sexual desire angle is thrown into the story – a dramatic move which essentially subverts a good portion of the remaining plot.
Just after moving into his new digs, Fr Michael is told by police lieutenant Stern (Ned Beatty) – during a most improbable dead-of-night visit – not only of the church’s blood-soaked past, but also how Millie (Jill Carroll), a young waitress at a nearby nightclub called The Threshold, was the last (human) to see Fr Dennis alive.
Later, it transpires that during what was probably the final confession heard by the slaughtered priest, Millie admitted she had sold her body and soul to her boss Luke (William Russ), whom she believes is the Devil incarnate. Part of the rationale behind her observation, no doubt, is the fact the club owner runs satanic stage shows in which close-to-naked women are “sacrificed” on an altar.
Naturally Fr Michael goes to The Threshold to investigate, where Millie – upon meeting Fr Dennis’ replacement – is inexplicably aggressive and evasive. Meanwhile Luke, after pointing out that the gruesome performances are merely an act, asks the priest to stay with him overnight as he is experiencing some supernatural discomfort.
It’s at this point that The Unholy starts seriously painting itself into a corner, throwing all sorts of elements into the narrative mix as the film lurches towards the eventual special effects-laden finale at St Agnes where, predictably, the big showdown between good and evil takes place.
These plot injections include the bloody death of Fr Dennis’ dog (which has somehow survived a three year illness), some further gruesome murders on hallowed ground, a demonic phone call from Hell, as well as Millie’s bid to take refuge in the church after a brief stint in a padded cell at the local loony bin – a development that sees her living under the same roof as the handsome, young, fit, celibate priest, despite the fact she had earlier accused him of rape. (Furthermore, in another strange development, the nubile young woman also suggests she was in some way interfered with by her own father, but is then required by narrative logistics to be a virgin. Obviously selling herself to the Devil incarnate isn’t enough to make her suitably unhinged to be a conduit for evil – she also needs to be either physically or psychologically sexually damaged.)
To continue carping on about the annoying quirks of The Unholy would be kind of pointless given most horror buffs with an interest in 1980s’ cinema will probably want to check this film out regardless of any of the above-mentioned gripes.
And rightly so, even if its flaws far outweigh its achievements. Yes, as mentioned above, its poorly executed mish-mash of a plot is derivative – all one has to do is think of William Friedkin’s 1973 classic The Exorcist and Michael Winner’s The Sentinel (1977) to get the picture. And yes, Henry Vargas’ cinematography, with its overabundance of blue, green and golden hues, is definitely a little anachronistic in a way only movies from the same era can be. Plus there’s a gratuitously violent montage involving Fr Michael’s descent into Hell during the big confrontation which tries – through sheer shock value – to make up for previous moments of plot ineptitude. Moreover, some members of the cast (namely Holbrook and Beatty) are under-used.
Nevertheless, it must be remembered this pre-CGI work (which was bankrolled by the long gone Vestron Pictures) employed a significant number of make-up and special effects technicians to create the climatic beastie; the only problem being the resultant creature looks like a cross between a slimy giant skinless hound and Thing from The Fantastic Four.
Thus, while cheesy, clunky and ultimately rather silly, The Unholy’s showdown is nevertheless proof that the producers were at least trying to take things seriously, despite the movie’s eventual overflow of shortcomings.
Although this may not be much of a consolation prize, especially for non-horror fans, it does provide the film with a modicum of redemption.
Words by Mark Fraser
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The Unholy was released on Blu-ray in the UK on February 25, 2019 as part of the Vestron Series from Lionsgate Home Entertainment.