The Unholy

Director: Camilo Vila
Ben Cross, Hal Holbrook, Ned Beatty

As you have probably guessed by now, a lot of times my mind is on movies, not just unknown movies but mainstream ones as well. But there are times when other topics come into my mind and I dwell on them for a while. One such topic, one that you might be surprised that I think about on occasion considering the subject matter of many movies that I write about for this web site, is faith. You may have concluded that I don't think about the possibility of God that much. Actually, I do like to consider that there is something really big out there, enough so that I have stated many times to whatever force is out there to please guide me to having both a good life and a lifestyle that is pleasing to that big force out there. However, while I like to think that there is some kind of God (or Gods) out there, that doesn't mean that I follow a particular religion. My attitude to religions is best summed up by a line in a hard rock song I once heard from a famous musician, which was, "Most organized religions make a mockery of humanity." When I see what many religious faiths practice and believe, while at the same time taking a look at the many things the outside world has, there always seems to be a real big clash between the two. For example, there is the case of the dinosaurs. While there is plenty of accurate scientific data and findings that prove that dinosaurs lived millions of years ago, there are a number of religions that have its followers stubbornly sticking to their belief that the Earth is only a few thousand years old and at one time dinosaurs and man lived together - or stubbornly stating that dinosaurs are just one big lie.

When I hear about such stubborn and wrong-headed religious people like that, I sorely wish that I was able to show them things such as Occam's Razor (which ironically was thought up by a Franciscan friar.) There are a lot of other ways that organized religions simply don't gel with the real world. So as you can probably imagine, I get a thrill seeing movies that not only poke holes at many organized religions and their stubborn followers, but exploit them. But I not only get a thrill at some films, at the same time I find fascinating what particular religions are targeted in these films. Certainly the Baptists have been a target on some occasions, and other times Mormons as well. But there is one religion that tops them all when it comes to filmmakers who attack or exploit religions. As you have probably guessed, it's the Catholic faith. There have been countless movies attacking the Catholic faith, such as the Oscar-winning Spotlight, and plenty more that exploit Catholic practices, such as The Exorcist. The inevitable question that comes up from these observations is why the Catholic faith picked on more often than other religions by filmmakers. I think one big reason is that the Catholic faith is... well... big. There are more than a billion people on Earth who follow the Catholic faith and recognize the Pope. When something is big in the minds of many people, often those people see the big thing as a target worthy of attack. No one kicks a dead dog, and no one is interested in an attack on a target that doesn't seem to be very important.

Another reason why I think the Catholic faith has been attacked and exploited by so many filmmakers is that some of its practices seem strange to many people. There is, for example, the enforced practice of celibacy of priests in the faith. As you probably well know, things that go against the The Unholynorm in society sometimes seem to be asking to be attacked, not just by filmmakers. A third reason why I think the Catholic faith has attracted attention by filmmakers is that over the years it has made many wrong-headed decisions, from putting astronomer Galileo through the wringer to covering up sex abuse cases. There are probably more reasons I could think of, but I think those three explanations pretty much cover why the Catholic faith has attracted unwanted attention from filmmakers over the decades. With that in mind, I had a good feeling that The Unholy would be another example of this, namely because it was a horror movie. "Christian horror" seems to be an oxymoron for the Catholic Church, which was upset over The Exorcist despite the production using three priests as consultants. Anyway, on to the movie. In New Orleans, a priest known simply as Father Michael (Cross, Live Wire) has been given a new assignment after miraculously surviving a multi-story fall which didn't give him any injuries. His assignment is to reopen a church in the city that has been closed for several years. The church had been closed because the previous two priests running the church had been murdered. What Father Michael does not know at first is that his superiors, Archbishop Mosely (Holbrook, Rituals) and Father Silva (Trevor Howard, The Offence), believe some kind of demonic force is responsible for the deaths of the two priests in the past, and that Father Michael is The Chosen One that has the ability to defeat the demon. Meanwhile, Father Michael is making his own investigation with the murders, but as the truth starts to reveal itself, he soon realizes that his faith - and life - may soon be subjected to great challenges that could wipe them out.

The Unholy was co-written by legendary Hollywood screenwriter Philip Yordan, who decades earlier wrote for classic movies like Johnny Guitar, El Cid, and Broken Lance, the latter of which won him an Oscar. However, towards the end of his life, Yordan was reduced to writing for schlocky projects like Night Train To Terror, Bloody Wednesday, and Cry Wilderness. With The Unholy being made during this schlocky period, you may understand why I didn't have the highest confidence for it. But as it turns out, the end results might be considered in some aspects to be a respectable production. The movie was backed by Vestron Pictures, which in the 1980s was a mini major Hollywood studio that turned out product that often had some considerable polish to it despite often having lower budgets than what was given to major Hollywood studio movies of the time. On a technical level, The Unholy has some strong features. The photography, while a little soft, is all the same very professional, giving everything an acceptable colorful look. The various interiors are reasonably well furnished, so that no particular setting looks malnourished enough to be distracting. As for the inevitable special effect sequences, they are also fairly well accomplished. Surprisingly, there is a lot less blood and gore showcased than you might think, but what there is does look pretty convincing and gruesome. The creature effects do look a little stiff at times, and their moving around is even stiffer, but all the same these creations do look a lot more convincing than much of what you get nowadays from CGI effect studios.

Since there is a lot less blood and gore in The Unholy than you might be expecting, director Camilo Vila (Options) more often that not has to find other ways to give his audience a good bite of horror. As it turns out, the techniques he uses in those sections of the movie oddly work somewhat better than the scenes with special effects. When the special effects rear their head, there is oddly a matter-of-fact feeling to the fang-bearing horror that is being showcased. This even extends to the climactic sequence where the demonic horror fully exposes itself. However, when the special effects are taking a break, Vila does manage to generate a slightly uneasy feeling to the normal going-ons that is happening. You don't know why, but something doesn't feel quite right with what you are seeing, and as a result you keep watching to see if something big will abruptly rear its ugly head. It's a good thing that there is this compelling uneasy feeling, because if it wasn't there, I think most viewers would be severely bored by the movie. There isn't much of a story here, and what little story there is seldom engaging enough to really interest the viewer. For example, there is a subplot about how Father Michael tries to help a woman (Jill Carroll, Funland) working for a club owner (William Russ, Beer) that holds vaguely Satanic rituals in his club. This whole subplot is stretched out to the breaking point, and is made further unbearable that it contains absolutely no surprises at all. Likewise, the main plot of the movie - Father Michael dealing with the demonic force that threatens him - just goes on and on in part because Father Michael's superiors at the church purposely keep him in the dark for a long time instead of just simply telling him what they know and what they expect him to do.

The characters of Father Michael's superiors, Mosley and Silva, are also curiously absent from the movie for long periods of time. You would think that since they know that something bad was happening and they want the problem to go away, they would be keeping a very close eye on Father Michael. That is not by far the only character problem to be found in The Unholy. A policeman character (Ned Beatty, Thunderpants) occasionally makes an appearance to want some closure for the mystery of the two priests killed in the past, but eventually the character disappears and is never brought up again. But the most disappointing character comes with Father Michael himself. There are a few stabs in the beginning to make him a colorful character - he smokes, drives a car, and wears regular clothes sometimes. But this is soon abandoned in favor of the curious decision to not let us knowing what is going on in this character's head. Why did he become a priest in the first place? Why does he initially believe that there is no such thing as the Devil? Why does he decide to investigate the murders of the two priests? Glaring questions such as those are never answered at any time in the more than 100 minutes of the running time. With the character of Father Michael written to be so bland, it should come as no surprise that actor Ben Cross can't give it any life at all. His performance is just as flat and uninteresting as his character, and he generates no sympathy at all. As it turns out, none of the other performances in The Unholy are the least bit compelling, save maybe for Beatty, despite the fact that he is clearly just going through the motions in order to grab a quick paycheck. Despite the glossy treatment, The Unholy ends up being a real bore. Ironically, had it been made by a schlock outfit, it might have had more life like Yordan's other schlock projects of the time.

(Posted March 15, 2022)

UPDATE: Reader Michael Prymula sent me this:

"Just read your review of this film and while I enjoyed it more than you did, you definitely have a point about the pacing issues and the story being a bit thin. I think part of that might be due to the fact this film actually had more scenes shot after the initial test screenings didn't go very well, with audiences saying the film was "too light". So I'm guessing all the gore scenes were shot after the initial test screening in an attempt to inject some life into the film.  Plus interestingly enough the director said during the initial release that it "wasn't a horror film" in spite of it being about literal demons from hell, and with this screenplay originally having been written way back in the late 70s I have to wonder if Camilo Vila originally intended this film to be more of a character study and tacked on the horror stuff later on due to negative reactions during test screenings, that would explain a lot of the films issues."

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See also: The Brotherhood Of Satan, The Doorway, Shadowbuilder