Director: Camilo Vila
Script: Philip Yordan & Fernando Fonseca
Cast: Ben Cross, Ned Beatty, Jill Carroll, Hal Holbrook, Trevor Howard, Peter Frecietta, Claudia Robinson, Norma Donaldson, Nicole Fortier
Running time: 102 minutes
Back when this film was first released in cinemas I remember coming out of a screening of it in Stoke on Trent chuckling to myself after witnessing some of the very cheesy special effects that pepper the final act of the film. Since then over twenty years have elapsed since so I was keen to watch it again to see if I still had the same non-plussed reaction to it.
The Unholy begins with a pre-credits prologue that sees a priest having his throat ripped out by a gorgeous female demon played by the very striking Nicole Fortier.
Three years later Father Michael (Cross) is asked to try and talk a seemingly suicidal man down from a high-rise ledge, but the man turns into something demonic and pushes Father Michael to his almost certain doom. However, Michael survives the high fall, which brings him to the attention of the upper echelons of the Catholic Church, especially the blind Father Silva (Howard), who has a special mission for Michael.
The young priest is sent to New Orleans to re-open the parish church of St. Agnes where the initial murder happened, along with one other – also of a priest. The one thing that seems to connect the murders, well, at least according to the local law enforcement officer (in the form of the ever-reliable Ned Beatty), is a young woman who the previous priests had wanted to help (or shag – you decide). As Michael is drawn ever further into this noirish murder mystery he begins to realise that the murderer might not be of this world and he’s most probably next on its Christian hit-list!
One’s enjoyment of The Unholy will largely depend on your appreciation for 80s musical scores, some fairly ‘rum’ dialogue, dodgy visual effects, and occult-related horror tales. Since I’m into all of those elements I have to say that I enjoyed The Unholy more the second time round, in all its cheesy neon-lit Eighties glory.
The cast alone is worth the price of admission, with Ben Cross delivering a generally very good performance; although he does have one of the most awful lines to say, on a par with Anakin Skywalker’s exclamation when he turns into Darth Vader at the end of Revenge of the Sith; truly toe-curling! An ancient Trevor Howard makes up for it though as the mysterious priestly puppet master, Father Silver, supported by the also excellent Hal Holbrook (The Fog).
Although Vila’s direction isn’t anything special he does imbue the film with its own sense of place and style, even if much of it does scream ‘we’re on a set lit with red and blue filters’! The director does get away with a fair amount of disturbingly kinky violence though, particularly in the dream-like sequences. One shot had me reaching for the rewind button to see if I’d hallucinated a certain eye-watering sequence – I hadn’t.
I have to say Hollywood doesn’t make them like this anymore, which is a bad thing. The Unholy will never be classed as a classic example of the horror genre, but it’s much better than so many snooty critics have made it out to be, and even though it has some cringe-worthy looking monsters in it, it’s still a whole heap of fun.
My favourite quote: “You don’t believe in the Devil?”
“Well, let’s say he doesn’t live in New Orleans!”
The Unholy is now out on Blu-ray and is being distributed by Lionsgate Films. The film comes with some decent extras including:
Audio commentary with director Camilo Vila;
Isolated score selections & audio commentary with composer Roger Bellow;
Audio interview with production designer and co-writer Fernando Fonseca, featuring isolated selections from his unused score;
Sins of the father with Ben Cross (19 mins) – Cross talks about his early career, including how he first got into acting, and then starts recanting his experiences of working on The Unholy. He provides a few funny anecdotes, including a Deliverance-related one concerning Ned Beatty and an over enthusiastic fan; and another involving himself and a groin full of cold snakes!
Demons in the flesh! The monsters of The Unholy (22.5 mins) – Make-up effects designer Jerry Macaluso explains his role in creating the creatures for The Unholy and, in an amusingly candid way, explains how ‘out of his depth’ he was when supervising the special effects on the film. Art director Steve Hardie, is also interviewed, along with Neil Gorton, about how they were brought in, late in the day, to help with the re-shoots of the effects shots after much of Macaluso’s efforts were rejected by the studio.
Prayer offerings with production designer and co-writer Fernando Fonseca (18.5 mins) – Fernando explains how his original script was very much more of a traditional murder-mystery, but with occult undertones, which the studio changed considerably into a more straightforward horror film.
Original ending with optional audio commentary with producer Michael Hayden (15 mins) – Probably the best extra on the disc shows the original, more subdued ending, which, to my mind, is probably the marginally better one. It’s certainly less cheesy!
Trailer (1.17 mins) – Emphasises the film’s strapline: ‘The Unholy – you haven’t got a prayer!’
TV Spots (2.15 mins) – Reminds us of Cross’s most cheesy, hammy line, namely: “Dear God, what is it you’d have me do?”
Radio Spots (2.25 mins) – Two radio adverts;
Original storyboard gallery (18.40 mins) – A storyboard for the newer end section of the film. Some of the sketches are quite disturbing. Best watched sped-up.
Still gallery (11.51 mins) – A mix of stills, behind the scenes shots, lobby cards and posters for the film.