The Unholy Blu-ray Review (originally published 2017)
In New Orleans – a city with a dark underside of black magic and satanic worship – two priests have been brutally murdered at St. Agnes Church. In the weeks following, a miraculous survivor of a 17-story fall named Father Michael (Ben Cross) is appointed to the ungodly parish. Is he really strong enough to fight off this terrible evil? Or will he be the third priest to die? (From Vestron’s official synopsis)
Camilo Vila’s The Unholy (1988) is one of those late ‘80s horror movies that everyone seems to have rented at some point, but no one seems to hold in particularly high regard. Watching it again for the first time in something like two decades, I realize that its misplaced following isn’t necessarily due to subpar quality (though I will be entirely honest when I say that it isn’t great by any stretch of the imagination) as much as a lack of memorable moments. It’s mostly anchored in a slightly outmoded style of filmmaking. It feels like a film trapped between passing and oncoming genre conventions – not quite up to snuff for a theatrical release, but also not sloppy and silly enough to qualify for the low standard of the early ‘90s straight-to-video market. However, once you’re willing to accept The Unholy’s nebulous, sometimes incomplete nature, it's pretty easy to admire its ambition.
First-time screenwriter Fernando Fonseca’s screenplay, based on a story by showbiz veteran Philip Yordan (who had been working since the ‘40s on the likes of Nicholas Ray’s Johnny Guitar  and Anthony Mann’s El Cid ), is swimming in untapped mythology and backstory that, if you really use your imagination, sort of ties the film to other, more famous Catholic horror ‘movie universes,’ such as Michael Winner’s The Sentinel (1977), Alan Parker’s Angel Heart (1987), and the Exorcist movies (it has the most in common with William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist III ,1990). A more cynical critic might call it a “rip-off,” but I’m feeling generous. Given the patchy, underworked nature of the story itself (events tend to just sort of happen and the audience is expected to find a thematic connection between them), I assume much of their broader narrative was removed before filming or during the recuts (as mentioned in the extra features of this very Blu-ray). It’s just as easy to assume that, given the horror market in the late ‘80s, The Unholy was intended to be the first in a franchise. Perhaps the writers were just saving their mythology for future installments.
Vila, who is still working on the STV market, does an admirable job creating atmosphere, especially in the way he uses colour to impart a comic book-like veneer over his more generic, smokey, Neo-Gothic look. This cartoonish slant makes me think that it’s okay to laugh with some of the goofier sequences, rather than at them, despite the better-than-average cast maintaining straight faces throughout their ordeals. With a bigger budget at his disposal (and/or a more lenient, open-minded producer/distributor behind him), I sense that he could’ve made The Unholy a lavish music video spectacle, similar to Russell Mulcahy’s Razorback (1984). It’s also unfortunate that Vestron/Lionsgate didn’t have an unrated cut laying around in a vault somewhere, because the gruesome moments are the most impactful, yet they also feel hampered by the standards of a 1988 R-rating. The gore effects skirt that line between cartoonish and realistic, which fits the mix-and-match tone perfectly. I only wish that the gleefully rubbery antics and impressionistic editing practices that pop up during the final act (most of which were, apparently, part of a reshoot done without Vila’s input) had been peppered more liberally over the entire movie.
In spite of the popularity and accessibility of Vestron’s The Unholy VHS release, the film never came to stateside DVD. Fans were forced to import from the UK or Germany. Vestron and Lionsgate’s 1080p, 1.85:1 Blu-ray debut is reportedly remastered (with no further details), but generally matches the so-so/at least it’s better than DVD expectations that the Vestron Video Collector’s Series has set for itself. The good news is that the original footage is in very good shape, bearing only minor scratches and print damage artifacts. Dynamic range is strong, which is helpful, considering the darkness and diffused lighting schemes of cinematographer Henry Vargas’ photography. Having never actually seen the film on SD DVD, I took a look at some screencaps available on the internet and, sure enough, the older discs appear quite muddy. Detail levels here are decent as well, especially in close-up, the eerie color palette is rich, and red highlights pop neatly. Unfortunately, the transfer is also rife with CRT/telecine noise, which stretches out the natural grain texture, lumps up in some of the gradations and dances along some of the harsher edges. This also results in the relatively mushy wide-angle textures and shapes. Basically, there’s still room for improvement, assuming anyone gets ahold of the original negative again in the near future.
The Unholy is presented in DTS-HD Master Audio and its original 2.0 stereo sound. It’s not the most impressive track, but all of the dialogue is clean and consistent, and the creature effects are pretty aggressive. Music tends to be the liveliest aural element, be it in atmosphere, jump scares, or even a brief moment when Father Michael leads his parishioners in gospel song. Composer Roger Bellon’s driving electronic score sounds fantastic, including deep bass, neatly separated instrumentations (the stereo spread is well balanced), and smooth layering effects. I noticed no distortion at high volume, muffling issues, or any other obvious compression problems.
Commentary with director Camilo Vila – Mondo Digital’s Nathaniel Thompson hosts this relatively extensive behind-the-scenes discussion. It’s not particularly screen-specific (as soon as Vila figures out that Thompson knows his stuff, it sort of turns into a couple of movie fans talking about their obscure favorites), but it is full of information, thanks to Thompson’s ability to keep the director speaking.
Isolated score track/audio interview with composer Roger Bellon – Red Shirt Pictures’ Michael Felsher interviews the composer for a solid 40-plus minutes, followed by a random assortment of music, presented in Dolby Digital 2.0.
Isolated alternate score track/audio interview with production designer/co-writer Fernando Fonseca – Fonseca basically interviews himself about his unused original score, which is more classically-based than the completely electronic music that was eventually used. He speaks for about 16 minutes and then his music plays.
Sins of the Father (19:09, HD) – Star Ben Cross (who I never realized was British) talks about his career as a working actor, being cast in The Unholy by his flatmate, who just happened to be director Camilo Vila, growing up Catholic, shooting the film, the rest of the cast, acting with a dozen snakes swarming over his crotch, and the original ending.
Demons In The Flesh: The Monsters of The Unholy (22:26, HD) – This featurette covers the special make-up and prosthetic effects design with supervisor Jerry Macaluso, who recalls getting the job as a teenager, gathering his crew, and having almost all of his demon effects deleted from the final film. It’s a charmingly honest portrait of young artists experimenting with a professional grade budget. Then, art director/additional SFX unit director Steve Hardie and effects artist Neil Gorton describe what they did during the extensive reshoots.
Prayer Offerings (18:35) – Fonseca returns for an on-camera interview to further discuss his script, the making-of the film, stumbling into his production design role, and his understanding of the re-edit and new ending that Vestron demanded before release.
Original ending with optional commentary by producer Matthew Hayden (15:02, HD) – This footage, taken from a preview screening reel, is arguably the crown jewel of this collection. Prior to this, I had no idea that the film was so extensively re-edited and re-scored. The original ending is rougher around the edges and clearly incomplete in terms of its special effects, but arguably better from a conceptual standpoint. It is at least spookier and gives the main character a more active role in vanquishing evil.
Trailer, TV spots, and radio spots
Storyboard & still galleries
Note: I haven’t kept all of the discs I’ve reviewed over the years, so some, like this one, will not include screen-caps. The images on this page are not representative of the Blu-ray’s image quality.