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The Unholy

* * * - -

Theological horror aims big but struggles to strike a tonal balance.

Image of The Unholy

Camilo Vila/ USA/ 1988/ 102 mins

On Blu-ray from Mon 25 Feb 2019

Much like its titular demon that appears as both a sexploitation vixen straight from a Jess Franco movie and a sub-Ghostbusters hell hound, The Unholy is a film of two faces.  It’s a confused cross between a straight B-movie horror and an Exorcist-type paranormal thriller with deeper theological concerns.  It doesn’t work, but it’s these inconsistencies that keep it interesting.

A young priest Michael (Ben Cross) is appointed to a New Orleans church, which had previously been closed due to the murder of two previous padres.  These killings had a demonic element, and Michael himself has recently fallen from a hotel window, apparently at the hands of a Satanic figure.  He not only survives but is completely unscathed.  His investigations into the earlier deaths lead him into the depths of a black magic society and the belief that he’s been chosen to fight the Devil.

It is hard to believe that this film can take itself in any way seriously.  It does, after all, feature a priest being tortured by two dwarves in bad rubber prosthetics and a man’s eyes running down his face before vomiting up his innards.  However, in between these occasional moments of entertaining lunacy, The Unholy is trying to tackle some serious subjects.  The Roman Catholic Church has enough influence to have two previous murders kept out of the press and to prevent them from being investigated too closely by the police.  It also raises questions of cult membership and grooming, through the Satanic club led by a charismatic charlatan who receives a nastily poetic comeuppance.  Father Michael is also hugely skeptical about the existence of Hell and its attendant demons, offering an interesting subtext about the nature and the limits of faith, although the film fails to address this in any real detail.

It’s probably these deeper concerns that attracted the like of Cross, Hal Holbrook and Ned Beatty to the project.  The film also features a small appearance from a much-depleted Trevor Howard in one of his final film roles.  Despite being in the terminal grip of alcoholism, he retains some of his old gravitas and his ravaged appearance also comes to make sense in the context of the narrative.

The Unholy is certainly a more of an intriguing curiosity that works as a patchwork quilt of conflicting aims and ideas.  The production history was massively troubled (almost at Caligula levels) with director Camilo Vila locked out of the editing suite at one point, which partly explains why it’s so oddly constructed.  If you can deal with the kamikaze tonal leaps, there are tantalising glimpses of a fascinating film.  For those expecting for some outright schlock, stick around for the demented final twenty minutes.