Title: The Unholy (1988)
Director: Camilo Vila
Cast: Ben Cross, Hal Holbrook, Ned Beatty, William Russ
The Unholy came upon the horror scene about a decade too late, the script had been written by veteran screenwriter Phillip Yordan (El Cid, Day of the Triffids) in the 70’s when films of the supernatural were extremely popular at the box office. Nothing came of that script until a decade later when Cuban film director Camilo Vila found the script in Yordan’s office and decided to make it into a film. Unfortunately by 1988, the big 70’s supernatural film fad, which spawned films like The Omen (1976), The Exorcist (1973), The Sentinel (1977) and The Amityville Horror (1979) (amongst many others) had passed and well, The Unholy didn’t get to ride on that band wagon. The Unholy was released during the time when the big anti-heroes of horror where at the peak of their powers, I speak of course of Jason Voorhees, Freddy Krueger, Michael Myers and Pinhead. Horror was no longer about catholic priests exorcising demons; by then these types of films were considered passé. Horror films where now about serial killers and special effects, some horror films even mixed dark fantasy elements into them. But that didn’t stop the filmmakers behind The Unholy from making their film.
The Unholy tells the story of Father Michael, a priest who mysteriously survived being pushed from a seven story building! Without a single scratch! This miraculous event leads the leaders of the Catholic Church to think that Father Michael has been chosen by god to fight against a priest slaying demon called ‘The Unholy’. This demon has been killing priests for years and the church will have no more of that! So they send their best holy warrior: Father Michael! Problem is that the demon tempts the priests with sex; can father Michael withstand the temptations of sensual pleasure?
The Unholy starts out actually quite promising, with this very serious vibe to it. I liked how the film was exploring those themes of sexual repression amongst religious folks, a restraint I never could really understand. Director Camilo Vila effectively conjures up an alluring atmosphere starting with this demon that takes the form of a beautiful super model dressed in see through dresses as the wind blows; If I didn’t know any better I’d say I was watching a Jean Rollin film! We are introduced to this mystery, who is killing these priests and for what reason? Father Michael, the main character of the film takes it upon himself to find out, so he works as a detective of sorts. In all honesty, the film has a film noir vibe to it that I enjoyed. Most of the film takes place during the night, the priest is the detective. Then there’s the colors in the film, now, we could chalk the excess blue and red to the fact that this film was made during the 80’s and back in those days, practically every film director was bathing their visuals with blues, pinks and reds, it was just the thing to do. To corroborate this you could watch say Vamp (1986) which was also a candy colored horror film; but we could also say that Mr. Vila was emulating the films of Mario Bava or Dario Argento, in look anyways.
But speaking of films that inspired this one, I’d say the biggest blue print for The Unholy was obviously The Exorcist (1973). Actually, certain shots pay direct homage to Friedkin’s film, if only The Unholy hadn’t strayed into goofy territory, it could have proudly stood as a bastard stepchild of The Exorcist, unfortunately, things turned out differently. The Unholy also has a little of The Sentinel (1977) in it as well when it comes to its priests who have seen so much evil they go blind. The problem with The Unholy is that director Camilo Vila was ashamed that he was making a horror film and didn’t want to admit it. In fact, in interviews he emphatically denied this was a horror film. Come on man, your movie is about demons from hell killing off priests, how could you say it’s not a horror film when it so obviously is? I hate it when directors are ashamed of working in the horror genre, it shows they don't really have their hearts into it. And so, at the end of the day, when the film was finished, producers found the final product a bit too tame for modern audiences. They wanted a more graphic film, with a bigger emphasis on effects, so they ordered a couple of reshoots involving more gore and effects. In terms of the gore, the film is quite graphic, there’s ripped off throats and people hanging from crosses with their bowels hanging from their guts and that’s all fine and dandy if you like your gore. Unfortunately when it comes to the demons in the film, the movie turns completely laughable.
I have to be really honesty here, whoever was responsible for creating the creature effects for The Unholy did a terrible job. At first the demon looks like this hot babe which is a great effect on its own, but then when the demon shows its true face, instead of looking scary, it instead looks like this totally ridiculous rubber monster. When the thing finally shows itself, it literally wobbles like some bad puppet that can’t move right? It is the least menacing looking thing you will ever see. Its face looks monstrous, but in a cartoony sort of way, it definitely didn’t fit with the tone of the film. Here we have a film that is trying to play in the same ball park as The Exorcist, but then during its last 15 minutes turns into some cheesy monster movie. I wouldn’t mind seeing a creature like that in a cheesy monster movie, but in this film which is trying to be all serious? The film takes a left turn towards goofy territory and it all goes to hell from there.
Some directors just don’t have a good grip on what comes off as cheesy or serious. Sometimes holding on to a specific tone for your film can be a difficult thing, and this is something that director Camilo Vila completely failed at. The movie goes from serious supernatural flick, to a goof fest, complete with midget demons straight out of Phantasm (1979). My guess is that the producers knew they were going to go up against effects heavy films like The Nightmare on Elm Street films or Hellraiser and they wanted to up the ante, be on the same level, they wanted something to wow their audiences with, unfortunately this effects heavy ending fails because the effects were terribly achieved. Not only that, some of the dialog is just completely laughable. I don’t know what it is about Satanists, but they always make me giggle! No matter how hard they try to be all scary, they just come off as a bunch of goof balls! So anyhow, I’m glad I finally got to see this one because I remember watching it as a kid and being kind of scared of it, but now as an adult I realize this film is complete silliness. It’s not a complete waste of time, there’s a place for this kind of goofy supernatural film that tries to be all serious, but isnt’, its called boring Saturday night. I’ve seen worse films about priests with little faith trying to exorcise demons that’s for sure. For the longest time this film was not available on dvd, but Miramax released it on this 8 film boxed set accompanied by other equally cheesy classics like Ghoulies III: Ghoulies go to College (1991), Chopping Mall (1986) and C.H.U.D. II (1989). Not a bad collection to own, just remember to save The Unholy for when you’re in the mood for a slice of supernatural cheese.
Rating: 2 ½ out of 5