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Blu-ray Review: “The Unholy” pits hokey, priest-baiting charm against stodgy pacing

Monday, February 25, 2019 | Blu-ray/DVD

Starring Ben Cross, Ned Beatty, William Russ, Jill Carroll, Hal Holbrook and Trevor Howard
Directed by Camilo Vila
Written by Philip Yordan and Fernando Fonseca
Lionsgate UK/ Vestron Pictures

If we scoff at those who might have you believe horror films are the work of Satan, at times you have to wonder whether they might have a subtle point – perhaps as a strategy for deterring would-be members of the clergy from entering the profession.

Case in point is 1988 flick THE UNHOLY, which sees Ben Cross (CHARIOTS OF FIRE) play our hero Father Michael, a charisma-free member of the god squad who talks, walks and smokes at such a soporific pace you have to wonder how he gets out of bed each morning, let alone muster the energy to battle supernatural forces.

After miraculously surviving a fall from a 17th-floor hotel room the good priest is rewarded with his own parish, though it’s something of a poison chalice since two previous overseers of St. Agnes were murdered in unspeakable fashion. Along the way he encounter a teenage runaway; a milky-eyed demonologist who speaks in cryptic asides (THE THIRD MAN’s Trevor Howard in his final role); and a shady club owner who, with his peroxide do, gauche medallion and inverted crucifix earring, looks like cross between Billy Idol and Billy Ray Cyrus.

After much wooden interaction with Archbishop Mosely (Hal Holbrook, THE FOG, CREEPSHOW) and the aforementioned demonologist, Father Michael discovers that he has been chosen to stand off against one of Satan’s minions – an Earth-dwelling being called the Unholy that uses temptation to snare priests, virgins and other such succulent human morsels.

“The final act gets increasingly batshit as entrails, fire and gallons of vomited blood are flung into the mix.”

Granted it’s a neat conceit, and if you squint real hard you can feasibly link THE UNHOLY with the likes of THE CHURCH and THE SENTINEL. This said, though, things are oddly stodgy and the pacing is often spectacularly uneven, the film lingering when it should lunge or inserting flashes of strobe-like insanity during moments of slowly-built mood. Despite its many imperfections, however, the film is not without a certain hokey charm: the groinful-of-snakes and prank-call-from-hell sequences are particular standouts, while the final act gets increasingly batshit as entrails, fire and gallons of vomited blood are flung into the mix before some enjoyably creaky demon FX enter the fray. This final showdown is the result of reshoots by FX whiz Bob Keen (HELLRAISER, CANDYMAN, ALIEN), and there’s a good chance it’ll make or break the picture for you. In the case of director Camilo Vila it’s definitely the latter – “I tried to erase this from my memory,” he groans during the audio commentary, though thankfully you can make your own mind up as his own preferred ending is offered here as an extra.  

This EU edition of the film mirrors the previous US reissue, and features a bevvy of other extras, including audio interviews with composer Roger Bellon and production  designer  / co-writer  Fernando  Fonseca; a featurette examining the film’s monsters; a fun 20-minute interview with star Ben Cross; a storyboard gallery and the inevitable theatrical trailer, TV and radio spots.

Alex Deller
Alex Deller writes about films and music. He doesn't get much sleep. Follow him on Twitter here: @dellerrr