The Unholy (1988), directed by Camilo Vila.
Written by Philip Yordan and Fernando Fonseca.
Starring Ben Cross, Hal Holbrook and Ruben Rabasa.
Directed by Camilo Vila, The Unholy is an 1980s horror flick with an identity crisis. Oscar-winning screenwriter Phillip Yordan originally wrote The Unholy in the 1970s, shortly after the successful release of William Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973). Audiences were terrified by the film adaptation of The Exorcist because, regardless of their religious beliefs (or lack thereof), Friedkin had adapted William Peter Blatty’s novel into a horrific tale of demonic possession that somehow felt plausible; and it could happen to anyone!
The Exorcist had worked because Friedkin himself believed in the project, in God, in the 1949 exorcism in Silver Spring, Maryland of a 14-year-old boy, and in fighting Warner Bros. to keep the film faithful to Blatty’s novel. The difference between The Exorcist and Camilo Vila’s The Unholy was with Vestron Pictures unwillingness to put their own faith into the latter. You see, The Unholy was written as a who-dun-it murder mystery; one rooted in Christian mythology. Yordan and Vila had never intended for The Unholy to become a straight horror film. It was through studio interference that The Unholy became what Vila had hoped to avoid: a monster movie.
Set in New Orleans, Archbishop Mosely (Hal Holbrook – Creepshow) and blind Father Silva (Trevor Howard – Craze) appoint Father Michael (Ben Cross – Exorcist: The Beginning) to the St. Agnes parish, believing him to be “The Chosen One” after surviving a fall that should have resulted in severe injury, or even death! St. Agnes had been closed after the unsolved murder of Father Dennis (Ruben Rabasa) almost a year earlier. His throat had been torn out…
With the help of the caretaker, Teresa (Claudia Robinson), Father Michael moves into the rectory, but is visited by Police lieutenant Stern (Ned Beatty) who informs him that another priest had been murdered at St. Agnes; exactly a year prior to the death of Father Dennis. Stearn, concerned for Michael’s safety, had warned Archbishop Mosely against reopening the parish to no avail. Curious, Michael finds in Father Dennis’s journal mention of a waitress named Millie (Jill Carroll – Psycho II), who works at The Threshold; an occult-themed S&M club downtown.
Deciding to visit her, Millie initially proves to be evasive, but unexpectedly visits the parish the next day, confirming that she had visited Father Dennis for confession shortly before his death. It was during this confession that she admitted to giving her soul to Luke (William Russ – Boy Meets World) – ‘the Devil incarnate’ – and owner of The Threshold. And before long, Luke also turns up at the parish, claiming that the club is nothing more than a host for performance art – gimmicks intended to bring in a trendy audience. He doesn’t believe in the occult, nor is he a satanist… He is just trying to make a few bucks.
Could Millie and Luke be linked to to the deaths at St. Agnes? When Father Michael approaches Archbishop Mosely and Father Silva to enquire further, they admit that they reopened St. Agnes for one purpose… Michael has been chosen by God to vanquish Desiderius (Nicole Fortier) – a demon who manifests as a seductive women.
And it is in the opening minutes of The Unholy that we are introduced to Desiderius tearing out the throat of Father Dennis, thus relegating all potential murder suspects – holdovers from Philip Yordan’s original script – to supporting characters of questionable value. Camilo Vila’s somber drama about a priest struggling with his faith instead has to rely on its special makeup effects. After all, The Unholy entertains its audience best when its slow burn dramatisation is interrupted by scenes of grotesque popcorn pulp!
Fernando Fonseca was brought in to compose the musical score – later scrapped by the producers – and to rewrite the script. Yet, it wasn’t until Bob Keen was brought in that The Unholy morphed from religious thriller to creature feature. The special effects for the original ending were designed by Jerry Macaluso, who would later work for Troma. Unfortunately his inexperience at the time left Vestron Pictures underwhelmed, so Keen and a new SFX team were tasked with reshooting the ending that made the final cut. Its both unfortunate and a blessing in disguise that Vestron Pictures got cold feet on Camilo Vila and Phillip Yordan’s original vision. The original ending was somewhat conceptual – yet poorly realised – but Keen’s action-packed finale ensured The Unholy’s cult status for better or worse!
“I tried to erase this from my memory.” – Camilo Vila, director of The Unholy
The Unholy is presented on Blu-ray; courtesy of Lionsgate’s Vestron Video Collector’s Series, with an AVC encoded 1080p 1.85:1 transfer, a decent DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 track, and three informative audio interviews; the first, a commentary with Camilo Vila – hosted by Mondo Digital’s Nathaniel Thompson; the second, an audio interview with production designer and co-writer Fernando Fonseca, featuring isolated selections from his unused score; and third, isolated score selections, and audio interview with composer Roger Bellon.
The highlights of this release however, are undoubtedly Sins of the Father, an interview with Ben Cross, who discusses elements of The Unholy’s production with a great deal of seriousness, and Demons in the Flesh: The Monsters of The Unholy, which documents the special effects created for this confused religious horror. Also included on the disc is Prayer Offerings, an interview with production designer & co-writer Fernando Fonseca; the original ending featuring an optional audio commentary with producer Mathew Hayden; the theatrical trailer, TV spots, and radio spots; the original storyboard gallery, and a still gallery.
There is much to like and dislike about The Unholy. It starts off strong until you realise that the opening gore removes any sense of mystery in Father Michael’s investigation. But if you can sit through the first ninety minutes of throwaway exposition and lethargic pacing, you will be rewarded with an ending that is pure B movie bliss.