The Unholy (1988) Blu-ray Review: Damp Devil Movie Gets Superb Release

Devil movies work best when they have a core of revelation. They need characters to struggle against the reality of the devil in their stories, to search for any rational explanation that is evil is not real, has a face, and is looking at them. The Exorcist might end with a half hour of puking, swearing Linda Blair, but that’s not until the poor girl is subjected to weeks of medical and psychological tests. Directed by Camilo Vila, The Unholy, a cult favorite devil movie that has finally seen release on Blu-ray feels like it understands the core of what makes a Devil movie work, but then goes ahead and tells you “It was a demon that did it” in the first scene anyway.

What the devil is doing is murdering priests who lead a certain parish in New Orleans. Two priests have been brutally murdered by somebody in as many years, so the church has been shut down until the Catholic hierarchy can figure out what to do about it. When Father Michael (Ben Cross) survives a several story drop when trying to talk a jumper off a ledge, the archbishop Hal Holbrook decides he might just have the stuff to take that Church back from the devil.

Father Michael doesn’t believe in an actual, physical devil, and he believes that the murders have to have a human perpetrator. Especially after he is approached for help by a young girl, Millie, who knew the former priest. Millie works at a goth-Satanic themed club, where the owner Luke (William Russ) performs mock human sacrifices for the excited crowd. Millie is afraid of Luke, who comes to visit the Father and say his devil worship is all for show, but he’s been feeling a presence in his home anyhow.

These plot machinations have some of the shape of a murder mystery, which would be interesting if we were not shown, in the first reel, exactly who committed the murder. It was a demon, in the form of a hot naked chick. She appears in Father Michael’s increasingly erratic (and erotic) dreams, and when he finally decides that he is facing a literal demon, she comes to tempt him with her attractive nakedness in the church.

This leads to a final sequence that needs to be seen to be believed. It moves from interesting to terrible and back and forth at such a breakneck speed that it’s got a unique power all to itself. There are some absolutely terrible effects shots (including two ridiculous looking imps that in one of the Blu-ray’s bonus features a special-effects artist rightly calls an oompa-loompa) and a demon that is two guys in a big suit, and looks like it. But there is also animatronic face of the demonic creature which laps up blood from Father Michael’s thighs in a most alarming fashion, and visions from hell that are often weird and disturbing (and often hokey.) The final 20 minutes of The Unholy are a complete mess, but they are not boring, which is more than can be said for an unfortunate amount of the movie that precedes them. The Unholy is a film that doesn’t know exactly what it wants to be, and so spends an inordinate amount of time spinning its wheels. Despite fine performances from a stellar cast, The Unholy inspires neither movie fright nor holy terrors.

The Blu-ray which houses this movie, though, is a class act all the way. Besides the uniformly fine technical specs, the disc is positively loaded with extras which give a much needed perspective on how The Unholy transformed from a mysterious story of faith and temptation into a silly ’80s horror movie with jump scares and oompa-loompa imps. There are three commentary/interview tracks on the film – the first is by director Camilo Vila, who describes how his movie was taken away from him and completely transformed into this silly horror flick. Recording the commentary is apparently only the second time Vila has ever seen the movie since it was re-edited. The other two commentary tracks feature the film’s two composers – Fernando Fonseca, who also co-wrote the screenplay and did production design, and whose orchestral score was scrapped from the film in place of Roger Bellon, who has his own commentary where he reveals his entire score was written in 10 days. Both tracks also contain isolated score selections, so it’s the first time Fonseca’s score has made it out into the light of day. Fonseca is also interviewed in a featurette about the making of the film. Two other featurettes are included: an interview with star Ben Cross and an overview of the special effects. On top of this is included the first release of the original ending, along with a commentary by producer Matthew Hayden.

The Unholy did not scratch my devil movie itch, but the extensive extras made me appreciate more what the movie was trying to do (and how it was kept from doing it.) It’s hard to imagine fans of the film needing anything more, or being unhappy with what is here.

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Kent Conrad

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