If the movies have taught us one thing, it’s that being a priest in a horror flick ain’t no Sunday school picnic. They’re always having to deal with things like demons, nuns with fangs, and little girls who spin their heads around and vomit pea soup. The 70’s were an especially big time for the “satanic panic” sort of films, but our film today takes us to the demonic side of the 80’s. Say the rosary a few times and douse yourself with holy water for 1988’s The Unholy.
We begin with a priest named Father Dennis who encounters something strange one dark night in his sanctuary…a sexy red-headed woman in a see-through nighty. The priest seems pretty concerned about this, and I guess he should be considering that after she plants a big wet kiss on his mouth she proceeds to tear his throat out and leave him to die. We then pick up a few years later with a priest named Father Michael (Ben Cross) who is brought in to help talk a man down from a ledge. The man ends up grabbing Father Michael and tossing him out the window. Strangely, though, Michael survives…in fact he isn’t injured in the slightest. This brings him to the attention of Archbishop Mosely (Hal Holbrook) and the blind Father Silva (Trevor Howard) who put Father Michael in charge of St. Agnes, the parish that has been vacant since the murder of Father Dennis.
It seems that St. Agnes has had several mysterious murders of the priests over the years. With the cases having never been solved, Father Michael sets out to get to the bottom of things. This leads him to a girl named Millie (Jill Carroll) who works at a strange nightclub with a satanic theme. She had come to Father Dennis for confession shortly before his murder and claimed that her boss, a weirdo named Luke (William Russ), was the devil incarnate. Soon, Father Michael takes in Millie who comes to believe that a demon who seeks to corrupt the innocent (such as virgins and priests) is coming for her. This all leads to a final showdown between the priest and the snarling demon.
The Unholy is a film that gets a bit too complicated for its own good, but does manage to be somewhat creepy. It has many elements that have certainly shown up in other satanic panic movies. The mysterious blind priest played by Trevor Howard made me remember John Carradine’s role in The Sentinel. Having a sexy female demon reminded me bit of the scene where Linda Blair gets all seductive on Richard Burton in Exorcist II…though this film does it with more skin. Then we have some weird little demon minions that are more than a bit reminiscent of the titular creatures in Ghoulies. The film does have some original elements, though. The idea of what is basically a satanic theme-restaurant is certainly original and does succeed in being pretty disturbing. I don’t want to know what they have on the kids’ menu.
This film does go bit over-the-top with the gore, and for many their enjoyment of the film may depend on how you feel about that sort of thing. Right from the beginning, the murder of Father Dennis is shocking and very graphic. Things get worse as the film progresses with two very unsettling deaths that come one right after the other as we move into the final act. The big conclusion itself, in which Father Michael faces the demon, is more than a bit weird and disgusting. It begins with him up against the demon in it’s sexy redhead form, and later moves on to us seeing the demon in all its actual gruesomeness gettin’ way too up close and personal with the poor priest. Depending on how you look at it, the sequence is either really gross or really cheesy.
On a whole the film is pretty well executed. Ben Cross, most famous for his role in Chariots of Fire, is quite effective as the virtuous Father Michael. Jill Carroll is also quite good as Millie. She has to perform a wide spectrum of emotional states and she pulls it off rather well. Some of the bigger name supporting players, though, are pretty much just doing as little as possible and trying to get the gig over with. Both Hal Holbrook and Ned Beatty, who plays a cop who has been investigating the murders, don’t do anything that you could’nt have gotten from your local community theater all-stars. As soon as the word “cut” was yelled you’ve gotta figure that Holbrook turned his head, held out his hand and said, “who’s got my check!?”
The Unholy is not a top notch horror flick, but it has enough going for it to make it interesting. It’s certainly not everybody’s cup-of-tea, though. For many viewers, the gross-out moments probably go a bit too far. It’s far too ugly to be called a “fun” horror movie, that’s for sure.