Archbishop Mosley and Father Silva are searching for a pure-hearted priest to do battle with The Unholy, a ruthless demon who takes the form of a beguiling seductress who temps the hearts and convictions of their holy brethren. The demon has been quite successful thus far, having already managed to kill two other priests in the previous years. They think they’ve found their champion in Father Michael after he survives a 17-story drop from a skyscraper without a scratch. But while Father Michael is sent off to St. Agnes to do battle with a demon, he also has to contend with his other priestly duties, like tending to his flock, trying to protect the souls of the innocent, and dealing with the local kink club down the street that may, or may not, also have something to do with the evil goings-on at the parish.
Ya don’t say?
The Unholy is an American supernatural horror film from 1988, and is yet another fine example in the fine tradition of kooky, religious-based horror films. Like The Exorcist and The Omen before it, the movie has a strong focus on religious symbolism and mythology, and in fact, was originally written around the same time as those preceding films as an attempt to capitalize on their success. But if it wanted to do that successfully, it looks like the film needed to go through a couple more rewrites. Because unlike those films, The Unholy goes more out of its way to make up stuff as it goes along, and though the movie tries to create a compelling narrative to try to tie all of its various ideas together, sadly the resulting output just ends up being a wildly plodding mess.
The movie’s greatest flaw is that it just can’t seem to figure out what kind of movie it wants to be. In the two opening scenes, the film not only throws a naked demon at you, but also has said demon rip out one priest’s throat, and then in the next scene has another demon chuck a second priest out a window. So you’re all set up to think that this film is going to be a bloody, horror-filled mess. But then the movie switches gears and tries to sell itself as some kind of mystery film, with Father Michael attempting to figure out who killed the last two priests at his new church, and how the Archbishop, police, a local waitress, and the local satanic club owner all figure into this murder “mystery” he now feels compelled to solve. Except that there is no mystery to solve. This is not a whodunit, or veiled psychological drama. We already know the culprit is a demon, and what’s more, we also already know that the Archbishop knows that the culprit is a demon. The movie has already told us that right from the very beginning. I mean, it literally goes so far as to show you the demons! The problem is that the movie doesn’t bother to share any of that precious info until the last twenty minutes or so of the film, when the Archbishop and company finally decide to share with Father Micheal, and the audience, what’s going on and why it’s happening. So that means for about 45-minutes in the middle of the movie the viewer is forced to watch Poor Father Michael meander his way through, what ultimately turns out to be, a bunch of superfluous scenes that serve absolutely no other purpose than to draw the viewer’s attention away from the main plot. That whole section turns out to be a complete waste of time that doesn’t go anywhere. The only parts that end up mattering to the plot are the first and last half hour. Then the film’s climax rolls around and turns the film’s focus back on all the horror and suddenly starts to take all the religious aspects of the film much more seriously than it has for the whole last HOUR of air time. So what you end up with is a movie that not only seems to be suffering from a seriously confusing identity crisis, but also wastes over 50% of its runtime mucking about with useless info, a pitfall which could have been completely avoided if the Archbishop had just opened his friggin’ mouth an hour earlier and told Father Michael what was happening from the get go. So, narratively, the whole film is just very oddly put together.
But the demon is hot, so maybe they were hoping no one would notice?
As a result of the tonal jumps, it should come as no surprise that the pacing also suffers. The opening and ending go by very quickly thanks to the wealth of information the film bombards the viewer with. But that whole middle section grinds everything to an abrupt halt, to the point where the film’s speed stagnates so badly that you almost feel like it’s going backwards. Even compared to other mystery tales the section is sparse on tension and revelation. Of course, it doesn’t help that the whole second act is absolutely pointless in terms of plot, so ultimately there are no real revelations to even be had, but even if there were, the movie takes so long in getting there that it doesn’t really seem worth it.
What’s going to keep most viewers intrigued (and likely ultimately disappointed) through the end of the film are the effects, which start off fairly strong, but end up being a mixed bag. The movie teases you with blood, gore and nudity in the opening, but if you see that and you’re hoping they’re going to keep that level of special effects pacing up throughout the whole film, you’re going to walk away dissatisfied. That’s just the movie’s attempt to sucker you in. If you fall for it, be prepared to suffer through a lot of confusing dream sequences while you wait another half an hour before you see any more blood, and even then, don’t be disappointed when you find out it’s not human. You then have to wait through yet another half hour of even more foot dragging and dream sequences before anything of gory substance happens again. Thankfully, that last one is far more entertaining (and highly gruesome), but the filmmakers probably knew at that point that they damn well had better thrown us something, after forcing the audience wait a full hour to see it.
Oh dear….This is gonna be quite the mess for the poor altar boys to clean up. Haven’t they suffered enough?
Then the climax rolls around and the demons finally show themselves, and the whole sequence is…. interesting, to say the least. The costumes of the smaller demons end up looking a little hokey, especially when their first act of terror is to run up to the priest and kick him in the shin. But the Unholy demon is actually pretty impressive, particularly when you see the puppet/animatronic walking around on its own. They apparently both take inspiration from the creatures from Aliens, only with a lighter color palette, so they don’t end up looking too bad. But then Father Michael falls into “Hell” and you can see all the cut corners come out to play. Because Hell turns out to just be a big, black, featureless void that Father Michael spins around in while the viewer is pelted with visions of scenes that we’ve already seen before, some dental torture, some kind of sacrifice, and a couple of white puppets that look like Muppet Show rejects. It’s all very confusing, almost laughable, and not nearly as terrifying as the film expects you to think it is. Nor does it really fit into any of the elements from the rest of the movie, which just makes its inclusion all the more puzzling.
Though, personally I think they look more like Pumpkinhead, but whatever.
Beyond some rather nice cinematography, the one thing that the film really has going for it, is its stellar cast. With the likes of Ben Cross, Ned Beatty, William Russ and Hal Holbrook, the acting on display here is better than it has any right to be. Cross’s Father Michael does go through the film feeling just a little too befuddled by everything that’s going on around him, but he and the rest of the cast still all come across as earnest and likable. Even William Russ, whose character is little more than a foil for Father Michael and an obnoxious asshole. It’s too bad they all weren’t given a better film to showcase their talents together.
After that strong opening I was really hoping to like The Unholy, but I walked away unimpressed. Some of the effects are fun, and the acting is great, but the story is just way too long and wonky. When your film is 102 minutes long and almost the entire middle of it is basically pointless, you know you have a problem. The poor movie was in desperate need of an editor’s pen and about 20-or-so cut minutes, or at the very least it needed a lot more connected story dots in order to be truly successful, and it just didn’t get it. There’s an entire inferred subplot involving a creepy statue of Mary and how it may or may not be the catalyst for all the sudden demon appearances, but much like the middle of the film, that particular plot thread goes absolutely nowhere. So why is it even included? It’s short enough, so why not just cut it out? No one knows. Much like no one knows what audience this movie was aiming for. It’s too bloody and filled with skepticism for the religious crowd. It’s too kooky for those looking for a serious drama. And it’s too plodding and sparse on the scares to really appeal to many of the hardcore horror nerds. So it’s kind of hard to recommend. I suppose if you’re really into religious-themed horror films you may want to check it out for curiosity’s sake. But if you do, may I suggest first getting acquainted with the fast-forward button on your remote. You’re likely gonna want to make use of it.
The Unholy is available on a variety of streaming services.
The Unholy is also available on Bluray. Just don’t get it confused with the 2021 version.