The Unholy (1988): “The Fine Line Between Religious Horror And Satanic Panic”
Horror is thought of as a safe place for outsiders. Mostly that is true but if you dig deeper into the subtext you’ll find that isn’t really all that accurate a truism. Slashers, for example, feature masked assailants murder (or punish) those who actively go against conservative American norms with the ‘final girl’ being the most meek. It is readings like that which saw the slasher being read as a deeply conservative movement in horror cinema. Other types of horror cinema aren’t quite as invested in what lies beneath the surface, instead, they shout from the roof tops, loud and proud what they are about. Films that are defined as reefer madness (named after a 1936 cult item) punish people who take drugs with horribly ironic punishments. There’s also Satanic Panic movies that put the fear of god into those who act out against, you guessed it, societal norms. Vestron Video’s the Unholy (1988)(dir. Camilo Vila) is one of the latter and in the grand scheme nowhere near as histrionic as those films could get; think religious horror more than propaganda piece using the language of genre cinema.
The Unholy opens with a priest having his throat ripped out by a naked woman upon the alter of his church. Moving forward, we are introduced to Father Michael (Ben Cross) as part of a high stakes interrogation to stop a man from jumping out of a high rise building. That doesn’t go well, instead whatever was possessing the man who was threatening suicide threw Father Michael to the ground, let’s say 15 floors down, and amazingly the Father doesn’t have so much as a bruise. Compelled by the blatant act of god, the young Father Michael is given Saint Agnes Church in New Orleans – the very same church whose previous occupant had his throat torn out. Once there he does his duty, part of which includes investigating what a teenager called Millie (Jill Carroll) had do with his precursors death and a man named Luke (William Russ), her hands-on employer who runs a satanic nightclub and who Millie claims to be the Devil.
Narratively, Philip Yordan & Fernando Fonseca’s script is a mystery in which Father Michael tries to solve a murder that the police (represented by Ned Beatty’s Lieutenant Stern) have been told to forget by the church. It’s a slow paced but deliberate procedural in which Father Michael becomes more and more aware of the danger that surrounds him in the supernatural part of New Orleans he calls his parish. This arc of the Unholy could be described as as more lurid American Grantchester infected by David Lynch’s eccentric wooziness, slightly anywho. The atmosphere and pervasive air of danger is of great credit to the film; as Ben Cook states on the on-disc interview – getting into the Night Life and Jazz culture of New Orleans, for research, helped crystallise this uncanny atmosphere.
The incorporation of the supernatural messes with that streamlined narrative, there’s a scene in which nightclub owner Luke asks Father Michael to watch over him as he sleeps as he fears he has been possessed by something otherworldly, although an impressively staged sequence there is literally no reason for it to feature. Throughout there are little vision montages that are meant to seed that Father Michael’s faith is faltering. A superfluous inclusion as we have more bombastic scenes scattered throughout that already do fulfill that job. The things that happen to him on a psychical plane, and not a metaphysical one, do all the necessary heavy lifting. Those montages muddle matters and for such a convoluted tale of godly fury – a sleeker narrative is always the better option.
In a decade where horror was as prolific and as quickly produced as it was, a little mess here and there is par for the course. Equally common in the 1980s was practical effects and on that front the Unholy is no mess and quite nasty too, which after watching an interview about the making of the titular demon was quite the achievement. The unholy of the title is a dog like demon that walks on all fours and commands a group of diminutive demons, both of which we get to see in very close up detail in a final 20 minutes that can only be described as satisfyingly full-on. There’s someone vomiting enough blood up to make Evil dead seem tame, other people setting on fire and exploding into charred skeletal remains, an eviscerated stomach, the aforementioned demon who cuts flesh from its hand-hoof and force-feeds it to the Father and the floor of the church falling away to reveal a pit to hell. Big ideas and big effects are aplenty, so much so, the first names up in the credits are for the production department – very unconventional.
It’s an impressive horror sequence and if the film stuck to its guns and kept the original ending (which features, including one of the many directors commentaries) the tone of this article would’ve been very different. I’d have been talking about this flawed, compelling and occasionally gnarly horror oddity as a simple headed, exploitative Satanic Panic movie instead of what it actually is – one of the countless lost in the shake up of 1980s horror cinema. The original ending is bad, but in including it in their copious body of extras as well as the fact they plucked the Unholy from relative obscurity show that Vestron mean business.