Studio: Vestron Video
Director: Camilo Vila
Writer: Philip Yordan, Fernando Fonseca
Producer: Mathew Hayden
Stars: Ben Cross, Ned Beatty, William Russ, Jill Carroll, Hal Holbrook, Trevor Howard, Peter Frechette, Claudia Robinson, Norma Donaldson
A skeptical priest discovers his church is hiding clergy murders connected to a demon who poses as a beautiful seductress.
What does a 1980s Full Moon fright flick look like when it has a multimillion dollar budget and an all-star cast? It looks like “The Unholy,” a B-movie that doesn’t know it is a B-movie, which is an amusing identity crisis concurrently making the film charmingly cheesy as well as creatively confounding.
There’s a good reason, several of them in fact, why it regularly feels like “The Unholy’s” right hand doesn’t know what its left hand is doing. Not only is “The Unholy” a case of creating a movie by committee and being bogged down by studio notes, it was also put together in a virtual vacuum, with key principals separately rewriting, reshooting, reediting, and recomposing until no one remembered whose roadmap they were following.
“The Unholy” started as a story by Philip Yordan, an Oscar-winning writer with countless credits dating back to 1942. Yordan’s text had been gathering dust since the 1970s. Then Cuban director Camilo Vila took the project’s reins and Fernando Fonseca, who also spent a month composing a musical score that producers later tossed, was tapped for a rewrite.
Vila never intended to make a straight horror film. He envisioned “The Unholy” as a whodunit murder mystery with psychological spooks rooted in religious mythology and erotic romance, i.e. the kind of serious artistic effort A24 would have released had they been around in 1988. Presumably, this is the pretense under which financing and talent were secured. How else does one explain why stars such as Ben Cross, Ned Beatty, Hal Holbrook, and Trevor Howard signed on for a project whose climax involves a rubber creature flanked by dwarf demons?
Vestron Pictures got cold feet on the elevated thriller aspect at the eleventh hour. Vila was shut out of the editing room as FX vet Bob Keen was brought aboard to punch up commercial appeal through pickup scenes that turned “The Unholy” into the monster movie Vila wanted to avoid. With much of the material already tied to Vila’s original ideas, final cut ended up a square peg that didn’t fully fit the round holes anyone had in mind. So when it seems as though Ben Cross, Hal Holbrook, and company are acting in a completely different movie than what “The Unholy” actually is, that is because they are.
The story that made it into the movie involves a demon determined to kill the pastor of St. Agnes parish during Lent each year. Archbishop Mosely (Hal Holbrook) and blind Father Silva (Trevor Howard) closed the church after the last murder, and kept the murder before that hush-hush. Police lieutenant Stern (Ned Beatty) remembers both deaths, however. That’s why he objects when Mosely and Silva select idealistic Father Michael (Ben Cross) to reopen St. Agnes despite the danger.
Father Michael doesn’t know it yet, and he won’t believe it when they tell him, but his superiors think he is “The Chosen One” prophesized to vanquish demonic Desiderius, who manifests as a seductive woman before killing sinners in the act of sinning. In the meantime, Father Michael has his hands full with church caretaker Teresa, Satanic S&M club owner Luke, and wayward young woman Millie, all of whom are holdovers from a plot that employed them as murder suspects, whereas now they are supporting characters of questionable value.
Retrospect makes the film’s weirdness more enjoyable. It’s hysterical to see William Russ, identifiable as Ben Savage’s dad on “Boy Meets World,” playing a faux cult leader wearing nothing but an executioner’s mask and leather banana hammock. Russ resembles a cross between Kiefer Sutherland’s lost boy and an 80s music video sax player with an inverted cross earring. It’s a strange sight to behold.
That sentiment more or less sums up the entirety of the movie. Certain fantastical sequences are edited in such a way that intent and action are nearly indeterminate. Individual scenes, particularly early on, put momentum on ice as they linger in long, inactive conversations and throwaway exposition. Yet the total texture of every oddity in the movie combines to make “The Unholy” hypnotically appealing in its subdued bizarreness.
There is a lot to like about “The Unholy.” Depending on whom you ask, including the people who produced it, there can be just as much to dislike. Whether you see the cruet as half empty or half full, “The Unholy” remains an intriguing curiosity due to its unusual evolution and unique position as a time capsule of late 1980s horror. Even undercut by hokey creatures, divergent dialogue, and a mishmash of myriad pieces, the gravitas of its cast and guts to go all in on ill-advised gambles sees the film holding up well enough three decades later, all things considered.
Review Score: 65
Vestron Video Collector’s Series Blu-ray: Courtesy of Lionsgate caring enough to roll out the home video red carpet, fans finally have a crisp, high-definition transfer that condemns all previous copies of the movie to a landfill. For years, “The Unholy” was only available on VHS, DVD, or online streaming in less-than-ideal quality. This drastically improved image makes the film look even better than many would have thought possible. In addition to the usual bells and whistles of a Theatrical Trailer, TV Spots, Radio Spots, Original Storyboard Gallery, and Still Gallery, a bevy of special features offers hours of additional content.
Audio Commentary with Director Camilo Vila: While Camilo Vila’s commentary isn’t one you are likely to listen to more than once, the first go around is indispensible. Vila dishes small specks of dirt on subjects such as Trevor Howard’s drinking and some Hal Holbrook tidbits. Yet the director’s disclosures about what went down behind-the-scenes provide context essential for seeing “The Unholy” in a more tolerant light. Vila and the moderator lose sight of the movie at hand when they break on unrelated tangents about lesser-known auteurs of cinema. But when Vila is kept on track, he has plentiful insight to add.
Isolated Score Selections and Audio Interview with Composer Roger Bellon: Original composer Fernando Fonseca needed assistance with the music on a certain scene. What no one foresaw is that one of the Powers That Be heard that single scene’s sound and said, “make the rest of the movie like that.” Out went Fonseca’s score and in came Roger Bellon. Over the course of a 40-minute interview, Bellon recounts the strange circumstances of never meeting the director followed by 10 days of sequestering to write and record a complete soundtrack at lightning speed. At the conclusion of Bellon’s audio interview, the remainder of “The Unholy” plays with only his score audible.
Audio Interview with Production Designer and Co-Writer Fernando Fonseca, Featuring Isolated Selections from His Unused Score: For a fourth spin through the film, fans finally get to hear Fernando Fonseca’s originally intended music on a dialogue-less track. This starts after Fonseca recounts his side of the soundtrack story in a 15-minute audio interview. His anecdote about a promised ten weeks becoming four to score the film seems like an eternity compared to Bellon’s ten days.
“Sins of the Father” with Ben Cross: Despite its choppy post-production history, star Ben Cross clearly has continued affection for “The Unholy,” as evidenced by his fond recollections in a brand new 18-minute interview. Cross comes across as both charming and candid about everything from Trevor Howard’s affinity for the bottle to the tribulations that come from filming with 60 snakes squirming in your naked lap.
“Demons in the Flesh: The Monsters of The Unholy”: “The Unholy” always planned on including a demon, just not the one that made it into the finished film. Original FX designer Jerry Macaluso is fascinatingly frank in recalling the five months spent as an 18-year-old architecting what he calls “a huge failure.” Macaluso recounts being in over his head with a blank check and no supervision as $300,000 was sunk into trial and error creature creation that nearly gave a puppeteer chemical burns. It’s refreshing how honest Macaluso is in discussing what went wrong and why. Steve Hardie and Neil Gorton finish off the 21-minute segment with their memories of filming the reshot ending with a new puppet under Bob Keen.
“Prayer Offerings” with Fernando Fonseca: This 17-minute featurette sees Fonseca discussing everything from how Philip Yordan’s original story came to him to on set memories of Trevor Howard that make Fonseca visually emotional with admiration.
Original Ending Featuring Optional Audio Commentary with Producer Mathew Hayden: At long last, fans can finally seen the original, unfinished ending for themselves and debate whether or not Vestron made the right call for a recut. Producer Mathew Hayden weirdly reads his collected thoughts on the technical details and BTS drama into a microphone over the first half, though it is a fitting final summary of the movie’s bumpy road to becoming the cult favorite it is today.