26th Feb2019

Vestron Video: ‘The Unholy’ Blu-ray Review

by Rupert Harvey

Stars: Ben Cross, Hal Holbrook, Ruben Rabasa, Ned Beatty, Trevor Howard, Jill Carroll | Written by Philip Yordan, Fernando Fonseca | Directed by Camilo Vila

unholy-uk-blu-cover

In the church of St Agnes, the ageing Father Dennis (Ruden Rabasa) is seduced by a nude woman with enormous ‘80s hair. Three years later, young Father Michael (Ben “Sarek” Cross) is driving the seedy New Orleans streets, accompanied by dodgy sax music, on his way to rescue a potential suicide from a rooftop ledge. The jumper turns on him and Michael is thrown to his death. Except Michael doesn’t die!

It’s miracle enough to convince Archbishop Mosely (Hal Holbrook) that he has found his replacement at St Agnes. After all, if Michael can plunge twenty storeys without a scratch, why shouldn’t he be able to rid the church of an evil that has left the last two priests with their throats ripped out? Michael is chosen as “God’s champion on Earth”. While this could all have been explained from the start, Mosely and his associate Father Silva (Trevor Howard, delivering some very hammy speeches) choose to hold it back for unhelpful yet dramatic effect.

Meanwhile, Lieutenant Stern (Ned Beatty) is convinced that Michael is as doomed as his predecessors. Stern is the Matt Hooper of the tale: there’s a shark in the water but no one will believe him. Michael also meets Millie (Jill Carroll), and he makes it his mission to save her soul. As a teenager she was pimped by a seedy club-owner named Luke (William Ross). The Unholy’s depiction of women, by the way, is questionable to say the least. They’re either hookers, human trafficking victims, vessels for evil, voodoo priests or mammies. Anyway, Father Michael is careering toward a showdown with Lucifer. Obviously.

At a push, there’s a bit of Prince of Darkness in the concept and the setting, although director Camilo Vila (a roommate of Cross’s at the time) doesn’t conjure anything like the atmosphere or sense of location that John Carpenter managed. And Carpenter had a knack for making us take the ridiculous seriously. Vila gets so bogged down in the murder mystery aspect that you’re begging for the next demonic invasion. I mean, as a character Stern is surplus to requirements. But how do you exorcise a great actor like Beatty?

Holbrook looks like he couldn’t care less, and Howard’s tongue is visibly in his cheek, so it’s left to the youngsters to bring the conviction. Millie is suffering from PTSD after a childhood of abuse, and her dribbling, wall-climbing performance is outrageous but impressive. Opposite her, Cross has the necessary gravitas to sell an ambivalent role which will ultimately see him become a demon-zapping Catholic Jedi.

For a time, Michael’s refusal to believe in supernatural forces on Earth creates an interesting inner conflict – even if it does make you question why he’s a priest, given his summary dismissal of scripture and metaphysical forces. As Luke points out – shouldn’t you be the one to believe that the voice on the end of the phone is a demon? Michael is a bit like Luke, in a way: Satanism is just “showbiz”.

With some showy, woozy editing and gaudy neon lighting emanating from a thousand different sources, Vila is giving us a VHS trash version of the possession subgenre popularised by The Exorcist and Rosemary’s Baby the previous decade. The possession scenes themselves are mostly comprised of flashing lights and writhing. We’re just waiting for the big reveal. And boy do we get it, in an insane final sequence involving demon dwarfs, lesbians, gouged eyes, dry ice, and a droopy-boobed wolf trying to gobble the manhood of a prone priest. Suddenly we’re in Ken Russell territory – and this is, apparently, the reshot ending.

The Unholy is fairly well-made, occasionally well-acted, fun, silly, grubby, hammy, incoherent and fast-paced – in short, it could only have materialised in the 1980s. It isn’t William Friedkin and it isn’t Roman Polanski. And with that in mind, it’s a perfectly enjoyable timewaster.

SPECIAL FEATURES:

  • Audio commentary with director Camilo Vila
  • Isolated score selections and audio interview with composer Roger Bellon
  • Audio interview with production designer & co-writer Fernando Fonseca, featuring isolated selections from his unused score
  • ‘Sins of the Father’ with Ben Cross
  • ‘Demons in the Flesh: The Monsters of The Unholy’
  • ‘Prayer Offerings’ with production designer & co-writer Fernando Fonseca
  • Original ending featuring optional audio commentary with producer Mathew Hayden
  • Theatrical trailer
  • TV spots
  • Radio spots
  • Original storyboard gallery
  • Still gallery

The Unholy is out on Vestron Video Blu-ray now.

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