Released during the tail-end of the ’80s horror boom amid a glut of horror sequels, THE UNHOLY (1988) tried to accomplish something a little different, but in spite of the solid turns from the impressive cast, this sincere attempt at a thought-provoking religious-themed occult horror film eventually falls a little flat; but those wishing to reassess one of Vestron Pictures’ more successful releases of the time will be more than happy with Lionsgate’s latest Vestron Video Collector’s Series Blu-ray.
Archbishop Mosely (Hal Holbrook) and Father Silva (Trevor Howard), an elderly priest who specializes in demonology, are secretly agonizing over a series of murders which occurred at the St. Agnes Parish in New Orleans. Believing this to be the work of some malefic supernatural entity, they grant this cursed Parish to Father Michael (Ben Cross), whom they believe to be (quote) “chosen” after he miraculously survives a fall from a high-rise building completely unscathed.
Unfolding like some colourful late-entry noir, Camilo Vila’s THE UNHOLY accents dialogue over horror for much of its running time, and features some spirited performances from a number of old-school veterans, also including Ned Beatty as a determined detective (“I don’t like unsolved cases.”). Both Holbrook and Howard do what they can with the formulaic dialogue they’re given, delivering it with their customary professionalism, as expected. Prolific TV actor William Russ also adds significantly to the roster of talented cast members (he also appeared in Gary Sherman’s WANTED: DEAD OR ALIVE  the year before), playing the owner of The Threshold, a nightclub where he stages hokey Satanic rituals for people’s entertainment and edification, but whose admitted (quote) “gimmick is turnin’ into a nightmare”; this when, as similarly happens to Father Michael, he also begins experiencing some vividly horrific visions. Skillfully shot by DP Henry Vargas using lots of coloured lighting and shadowy textures, the film looks great, and it musters-up plenty of atmosphere, emphasizing the much-touted “mystery” element. However, this aspect is squandered away when, during the film’s exciting opening, it’s clearly revealed who is killing these priests: namely, a beautiful – and frequently nude – redheaded succubus (Nicole Fortier), who continually tempts Father Michael with the pleasures of the flesh up until the somewhat out-of-place special effects-laden finale.
As revealed in the disc’s audio commentary with director Vila, THE UNHOLY was never intended to be a full-blown horror film, but rather a (quote) “whodunit” instead. The film was eventually recut in hopes of upping its commercial appeal, which also included a complete – and exceedingly unnecessary! – reshoot of its original ending without director Vila that added some (quote) “demonic oompa-loompas”, plus extra gore and nudity. Although far from horrible, the F/X laden finale with its rubbery monsters and gratuitous gore is more akin to an Empire Pictures film, and it all simply feels out-of-place amidst the rest of Vila’s more smoothly/stylishly-done material.
As with all of these Vestron Video Collector’s Series entries, the 1080p HD transfer is superb, and this increased quality/clarity at last allows the glossy ’80s-style photography to reveal more of its subtler details. The DTS-HD 2.0 Mono Audio also sounds excellent, without any discernible issues. Overall, the disc looks and sounds pretty great. The extensive extras begin with an informative audio commentary with director Camilo Vila that is moderated by Mondo Digital’s Nathaniel Thompson who keeps things moving along nicely. The Cuban-born director has plenty to say about his potential (quote) “ticket to Hollywood” and how his original story was planned to unfold during Lent, an idea which was quickly dropped. He also has nothing but praise for his cast (“It’s like having a Rolls Royce with a driver.”) and casting director Carol L. Dudley. In spite of some of the film’s similarities to Michael Winner’s shocker THE SENTINEL (1977) – of which Vila is also a big fan – he admits he never had a good ending, but the new finale (quote) “horrifies me and is the same concept but badly done.” As an added bonus, the disc also includes an audio interview with composer Roger Bellon (41m21s - conducted by Red Shirt Pictures’ Michael Felsher), who was brought in at the last minute to re-score the picture. They discuss his time in France as a youngster; his time at Berkeley; and making sure (quote) “everything was moving in the right direction” when he improvised the entire score in just 10 days! A second audio interview with production designer and co-writer Fernando Fonseca (16m09s) is also included. As promised on the packaging, Bellon’s score is also included as an isolated audio track, but the disc also includes Fonseca’s unused score as well!
In association with Felsher’s Red Shirt Pictures, the disc includes three separate featurettes, which begins with “Sins of the Father” (19m09s). In it, English actor Ben Cross talks about how work brought him to the United States, and that he had (quote) “no ambitions for Hollywood.” He too talks about his (quote) “utmost respect for his fellow cast members”, as well as the infamous nightmare sequence involving snakes, which he describes as (quote) “very uncomfortable.” In “Prayer Offerings” (18m35s), production designer and co-writer Fernando Fonseca talks about his extensive contributions to the film and how he became attached to the project via its producer, Matthew Hayden. Fonseca freely admits that he wore (quote) “too many hats” on the production, and actually becomes quite emotional when discussing Trevor Howard. In the last Red Shirt Pictures produced extra, “Demons in the Flesh – The Monsters of the Unholy” (22m26s), Jerry Macaluso discusses his initial involvement in the production, his influences – including legendary F/X artist Dick Smith – and his many mistakes during the production… but then again, he was just a teenager at the time, after all! Also interviewed is Steve Hardie and Neil Gorton, who were part of Bob Keen’s (an F/X guru best-known for Clive barker’s HELLRAISER ) crew for the extensive reshoots.
Thankfully, the disc also includes the original – and less F/X-heavy – ending (15m02s), which showcases much of Macaluso’s work and is more in touch with the tone of the rest of the film. Rounding-out the extras are the film’s original theatrical trailer (1m17s), a pair of TV spots (2m15s), one of which includes audience reactions; a couple of radio spots (2m25s); an original storyboard gallery (18m40s); and an extensive still gallery (11m51s), which highlights numerous behind-the scenes photos and promotional material.
For all of the film’s initial hyperbole (“What in hell has taken over this place!”), THE UNHOLY doesn’t quite live up to expectations, but Lionsgate’s newest Vestron Video Collector’s Series Blu-ray certainly delivers the ecclesiastical extravagance. Order it at DiabolikDVD.