Sunday, July 23, 2017

The Unholy (1988)

After young Catholic priest Father Michael (Ben Cross) against all reason survives being thrown out of a window by a supposed suicide without even the slightest injury, New Orleans’s archbishop Mosely (Hal Holbrook) and a blind, mysterious and hysterically overacted elderly priest we will later learn to be called Father Silva (Trevor Howard) look upon him with rather different eyes. Why, he might just be “the Chosen One”, which, as you know, is a very important part of Catholic doctrine that just happens to not be written down anywhere, certainly not in that book, whatsitcalled? Right, the Bible!

Anyway, his potential Chosen One status earns Michael his own parish, a church somewhere in what looks like one of the poorer, predominantly black, parts of New Orleans, yet which still harbours that whitest of things – a Satanist themed nightclub. The nightclub and its boss, one Luke (William Russ), aren’t too troubling for the rather modern Father Michael at first. He’s got worse problems to cope with: turns out his two predecessors in his church were both murdered right in front of the altar. The police were so helpless to solve the crimes they even asked the Church to close the place down; which they did before sending Father Michael. As the audience knows – and Michael will take quite a while to accept because he doesn’t believe in the devil or demons – the priests were murdered by a demon appearing as a pretty nude sexy (though curiously grown-up and female) woman (Nicole Fortier).

So clearly, some temptation of the flesh in form of one of Luke’s baristas is on the menu for Father Michael, as well as some theology lessons and other random nonsense.

Camilo Vila’s The Unholy is a deeply flawed film that I nonetheless love quite passionately. Its worst flaw is obviously the pacing: it starts, stops, starts, comes to a halt again, repeats plot points for no good reason to then get going again, and has about as much flow as a German rapper (don’t ask). I also can’t deny that it is much more talky than it needs to be, again tending to repeat ideas and plot beats for no good reason whatsoever. Then there’s the Ben Cross factor. While I don’t have anything against the man as an actor, the film’s slower parts could have used some enlivening by a leading men who is a bit more outwardly charismatic and whose acting style isn’t quite as dry as Cross’s.

Having said all that, here’s why The Unholy is awesome: living as we do in a time where all religiously themed horror (at least the Christian kind) seems to be inevitably about exorcisms, it is such a wonderful change of pace to see a film that just makes up some wacky bit of mythology it adds to Catholicism and then proceeds to tie things up with the sorts of things demons in the Christian interpretation are rather more interested in than possession. Temptation, particularly of priests (and saints) is rather a big thing in this mythology, and there aren’t too many films directly about it, even though this approach potentially adds fine opportunities for actually talking about morals, the complexities of the human heart and getting some nudity into your film.

The Unholy doesn’t stop there, though: in its final twenty minutes, it climaxes in (some might say devolves into) a very 80s horror concoction with multiple crucifixions, a thematically pertinent demonic parody of the Catholic mass, a ridiculous yet inspired demon (who also still looks like said sexy redhead in actually rather disquieting intercuts), his adorable assistant demon dwarfs, a short descent into hell with quick snippets of DEBAUCHERY! CANNIBALISM! LESBIANISM! ICKY STUFF!, and a sudden awakening of Cross’s inner scenery chewer. And while there’s certainly too much feet-dragging before, even earlier in the film there’s still space for fun stuff like Trevor Howard’s channelling of the spirit of Vincent Price in a really outrageous week, or the ten minutes in which Luke (who is only a fake Satanist for publicity reasons, by the way) turns into our short-term protagonist and visits a dramatic yet less than helpful medium who basically explains to the man afraid of the bad shit that’s going down that bad shit is going down and she’s utterly useless.

All of that is directed by Vila in spurts of somewhat stylish 80s colour, some dry ice fog, shot in some cool and some not so cool locations. What’s not to like (except for all that stuff I already mentioned)?

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