THE UNHOLY (1988): Reverent Occult Horror with a Dash Of Spookablast

VHS-era exorcism tale is the latest offering in Lionsgate’s Vestron Video Blu-ray lineup

When a Catholic priest (Ben Cross) survives being thrown from a high-rise with nary a scratch or bruise, his superiors in the Church view the miracle as proof that he’s been chosen to act as a divine instrument against demonic forces. The young priest is assigned to a parish where his two predecessors were both viciously murdered under bizarre, satanic circumstances.

Father Michael is a strange choice for the assignment: a rigid skeptic who, despite his priesthood and a near-fatal brush with the miraculous, staunchly dismisses the possibility of demonic activity as medieval superstition.

I noticed while logging the film on Letterboxd that the user ratings were pretty low, hovering around 2 stars. Interestingly, one of the positive reviews was from our own Justin Harlan, who identified with its themes of spiritual warfare. Perhaps it’s in part because of our shared faith and theological interests that we both really enjoyed this film.

With a title like The Unholy, I was prepared to brace for the ludicrous doctrine or casual blasphemy that often come with the territory. But despite Vestron Video’s exploitation cred, it’s actually a pretty solemn tale of spiritual warfare with a reverent, faith-positive narrative – without sanitizing the strong themes of lust and violence. Michael is warned to beware “The Unholy”, a blasphemous demon that preys on virgins and celibate priests, first tempting and then slaying them during acts of fornication as an offering to Satan.

But Michael is more concerned with the plain facts of the case, applying his own detective work to the murders, and targeting the occult-themed nightclub whose members may have perpetrated them. (His skepticism is actually a tad overwritten — upon hearing a reading offered as warning, he dismisses the passage as superstitious nonsense. But any priest would recognize the words as familiar Bible verses).

Key to the film’s effectiveness is a very respectable cast: Trevor Howard and Hal Holbrook are a commanding presence as Michael’s superiors (and demonologists) in the Church, with Ned Beatty popping in periodically as a concerned police detective.

While something of slow burn, the film dives deep into its material, rewarding the viewer with with effects-heavy third act with some bizarre demonic kills and a big, bombastic finish when The Unholy is finally revealed.

The Package

The Unholy is now available as Spine #10 in Lionsgate’s prestige-format Vestron Video line. As per the series aesthetic, it features attractive classic artwork and a glossy slipcover with metallic accents.

Special Features and Extras

  • Original Ending (15:02)
    Optional Commentary by Producer Mathew Hayden
  • Sins of the Father (19:09)
    Interview with star Ben Cross, who is still active (viewers may recognize him as Spock’s dad in the rebooted Star Trek). Cross gives the film a sense of gravitas, and he brings it to this interview as well.
  • Demons In The Flesh: The Monsters of The Unholy (22:26)
    Key players discuss the drama surrounding the effects sequences of the film, in which the inexperienced team of effects artists was replaced late in the production. Having watched the original ending (included on this disc), I would defend the original team led by Jerry Macaluso — their work was effective and even preferable to the replacement.
  • Prayer Offerings (18:35)
    Interview with Co-Writer and Production Designer Fernando Fonseca. What a pleasant and endearing man — he expresses his affection for the production, excitement for the Blu-ray, and disappointment at studio treatment of the final edit with equal earnestness, sometimes clearly holding back raw emotions (sadly, he went in with full enthusiasm and felt burned by the experience).
  • Theatrical Trailer (1:17)

  • TV Spots (2:15)
  • Radio Spots (2:25)
  • Original Storyboard Gallery (18:40)
  • Still Gallery (11:51)
  • Audio/Commentary Tracks:
    — 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

A/V Out.

Get it at Amazon:

Except where noted, all 16:9 screen images in this review are direct captures from the disc(s) in question with no editing applied, but may have slight compression inherent to file formats. All package photography was taken by the reviewer.

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