Once The Exorcist (1973) came out and made its mark on society as being THE best movie about demonic possession to ever exist (in my opinion it still holds that status) any other movie about priests battling hellspawns and/or Old Scratch himself that came onto the scene later are inevitably compared to William Frieidkin’s movie. I have not yet tackled any of the extras yet, so I don’t know, but the question that goes through my mind ever so briefly when I see one of these movies is how much of an inspiration was The Exorcist? It obviously had some pull, and in the case of The Unholy, it probably should have had more influence.
I was nineteen when this movie was at the theaters and I have brief memories of seeing the commercial. Chris, an old high school friend of mine I was palling around with at the time went to see it, I believe. I think I was on the fence about whether I wanted to see it myself. I don’t believe I did. The Exorcist crippled me when I first saw it on TV as a kid, so I was deeming all movies about demonic possession off limits. I don’t think Chris liked it. I personally didn’t see it until it hit cable in 1989 and I was bored to tears and have not seen it since. I had a brief desire to get it when Liongate put it on one of their DVD sets back in 2012, but never followed through. This blu-ray here, when it was announced, got me thinking otherwise. So, now that I have seen it, what do I think about it? Well, I have to say this time it didn’t bore me, in fact I found it to be not a bad horror movie, and amazingly one I could see myself putting on again in the future, hence it makes my collection!
The Exorcist is about the closest a movie could ever come to portraying demonic possession and the battle that ensues to rid the world, and the possessed, of it realistically despite the presence of occasionally gory effects. The Unholy’s portrayal of a priest battling Satan’s minions is more on the cheesy side, since the demons that show themselves in the last act are presented literally making the film more of a creature feature.
There’s a particularly nasty demon Satan employs to make life hell for us humans (specifically priests and virgins) down here on Earth. It’s called, Desiderius , The Unholy (human form/Nicole Fortier), and it’s deemed the Saint Agnes church in New Orleans a fruitful hunting ground. The movie opens with a priest confronting this demon and losing, and I mean losing spectacularly to the point where she tears his entire throat out. You see Desiderius kind of comes off as a supped up succubus, who loves to temp priests with her naked body. Those that give in are torn to shreds and their souls offered to Satan. These offerings are quite regular too; before that Priest was killed there was another before him whom she also gave an abrupt tracheotomy to. The night before Easter is when these Priestly offerings need to be made.
Father John Michael (Ben Cross) is a unique priest among priests. Three years after that event in the beginning of the movie a jumper named, Claude (Peter Frechette), requests Father Michael by name. As he’s almost got the man into the room, he grabs John and pulls him out the window and he plummets three stories straight down. Having forgotten most of this movie I can safely say I did not see that coming. But you know what? John survived and without a single scratch or broken bone.
Hal Holbrook (Creepshow, Rituals) is Archbishop Mosely who assigns John to the Saint Agnes church after he gets out of the hospital. That church had been closed up since that priest’s murder. Mosely and blind Father Silva (Trevor Howard) know something John doesn’t though, John’s the chosen one. In the final act we learn directly from Silva and from the sudden appearance of a Necronomicon-ish book (no one knows where it came from) in a previous scene all about Desiderius , but why John’s the chosen one to battle her, nothing really, we just know the priests are confident he can whoop her ass.
The 2-page review from Gorezone #2
Not knowing the role he’s destined play in this unholy battle, John opens up the church and gets people in the neighborhood going again. Before he died the former priest was trying to help a local girl by the name of Millie (Jill Caroll) get out from under the influence of this club owner, Luke (William Russ). Luke, for a short while, is the movie’s red herring. He puts on simulated acts of Satanism on stage, but hearing it from Millie’s mouth you’d think he was the Devil himself. Nah, he’s just a really good con-man making a buck. A tad on the douchy side, but he’s not behind the murders of the two priests Lieutenant Stern (Ned Beatty) kind of assumed he might have been years before.
There are a few flash forwards in this movie done through occasional “visions” John has. The most prominent when he’s psychically, and physically, attacked one night while he sleeps and we get to see quick shots of scenes to come.
I saw Millie as a very mild version of Reagan from The Exorcist, but she’s never possessed. She does, however, briefly lose her mind when that dead priest from the beginning calls her one night, and she ends up in an asylum. Her performance in that asylum scene when John comes to visit had me quite disturbed since she acted it so well. During her “flip out” we learn her father sexually abused her. She gets her shit together eventually and stays with John at the church. She kind of has the hots for him and he her, but we don’t get that part of the “relationship” revealed until he confronts Desiderius in the final act and while being tempted (the demon tempts those with their unspoken desires) she briefly takes the form of Millie.
Coverage of The Unholy can be found in issues #68 (left) and #74 (right) Of Fangoria.
Between the opening of the church and John’s battle at the end weird and bloody shit happens, like a dog having its throat torn out in the same demonic manner at the altar in the church, the aforementioned psychic attack, and what pretty much gets John believing something unholy truly is happening is the discovery of Luke’s body, disemboweled and hung upside down on the cross over the alter. And just in case that doesn’t get him on board, for good measure the jumper that tossed him three stories is there when he discovers the body, telling him “She” told him to do it. His eyes supernaturally gouge themselves out, he pukes up gallons of blood and he and Luke’s body suddenly go up in flames! Jesus, that’s a hell of a Monday.
One last skull session with Silva and Mosely and John is off to confront Satan’s “tool” in the church. What a coincidence that Easter is tomorrow. Now we enter creature feature territory right after Desiderius ’ temptation is rejected. She then turns into this four-legged saggy titted demon, who has two midget demon helpers tie John down while she gives his inner thigh a tongue bath. Bob Keen created the effects of this ending and the animatronic tongue is quite realistic looking! It’s not until Millie comes out to see what’s happening and gets attacked (you see Millie is still a virgin) that John allows the power of Christ to flow into him and take out Desidarius, sending her back to Hell. John isn’t killed, but his eyes are white and he’s blind giving us insight into how Father Silva knew so much about this demon.
There was a different ending put on this film initially, but test audiences hated it so Vestron hired FX artist Bob Keen to re-design a new demon and shoot a new ending. The original ending is included as an extra. This movie would have been a noteworthy late 80s flick, I think, had they just found a good way to represent Desiderius in demon form and how she and John did battle. The original demon is humanoid, but since this ending is un-remastered it’s very, very dark, and you can only see the demon in the beginning when the light catches its glistening body, but then, finally, towards the end when the power of God finally lights up the room can you see actually see it. God’s power is represented differently in this ending coming off a lot cheesier. We get an actually spotlight right on John and his eyes glow. At least they toned all that down in the new ending. The original ending is a lot less bloody too. In the theatrical one, John is forced to swallow a piece of its skin; the visions of random bloody acts happening to people reminded me of the quick flashes of Hell Laurence Fishburne has in Event Horizon (1997).
As I previously mentioned The Unholy’s first appearance on disc came in 2012 from Lionsgate through one of their 8 Movie Pack Horror Collections, but come June 27th we’ll have it restored and remastered for blu-ray through that studio’s Vestron Video Collector’s Series banner! Buy it here on Amazon!
Video/Audio/Subtitles: 1080p 1.85:1 high definition widescreen—2.0 English DTS-HD Master Audio Stereo—English SDH subs
Lionsgate did a real fine job remastering it. Since this is a bloody movie the reds pop! It’s a rather stylized looking flick, so, in fact, all the colors pop!
Extras included . . .
- Audio Commentary with Director Camilo Vila, moderated by Mondo Digital’s Nathaniel Thompson
- 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
- Original Ending featuring Optional Audio Commentary with Producer Mathew Hayden (15:02)
- Sins of the Father with Ben Cross Featurette (19:09)
- Demons In The Flesh: The Monsters of The Unholy Featurette (22:26)
- Prayer Offerings with Production Designer & Co-Writer Fernando Fonseca Featurette (18:35)
- Original Storyboard Gallery (18:40)
- Still Gallery (11:51)
- Theatrical Trailer
- TV Spots
- Radio Spots
If you’re not already familiar with this movie, or, if you are . . . I was, but until this blu-ray had no idea the movie as a whole was a troubled production. I kind of had that sense when I heard about the ending be re-shot, but if you’re like me and curious as to how and why it went wrong, I direct you first to the commentary with the director, then to the ‘Demons In The Flesh’ featurette that has interviews with the FX artists who worked on both endings, and then finally to the interview with production designer/co-writer, Fernando Fonseca. Vila’s original idea and treatment was a murder mystery with only slight supernatural overtones, but Veston wanted an actual in your face horror movie, so that’s what they made it into. According to Fonesca filming began in the fall of ’86, the ending was re-shot in fall of ’87, and the movie didn’t get released until April ’88. As to the ending being re-shot, aside from the test audience hating what they originally filmed, Vila admits his original idea didn’t have one, so that’s problem number #1, and problem #2 would be they hired a teen-age FX artist who was basically out of his element, for he had never done anything like that before; spent a shit-load of money and didn’t have anything to show for it at one point. He even admits he probably shouldn’t have taken the job. Despite all this the movie was actually pretty popular on VHS, and it did make some money. Vestron Pictures, however, went belly-up after releasing it when a bank deal went sideways. The Unholy was their last film!
My hat’s off to Red Shirt Pictures owner, Micheal Felsher, and producer, Heather Buckley, for assembling these extras and documenting the film’s troubled waters. Red Shirt does all the extras for this line and I have yet to come across a Vestron blu that does not deliver in the extras department.
The Exorcist this ain’t, it’s not even Exorcist lite, but it’s still an interesting (and bloody) entry in demon creature cinema you should check out at least once in your lifetime.