The Unholy (1988)

The Unholy first published by Little White Lies, as the 76th entry in my Cinema Psychotronicum column

Burt Reynolds used to tell an anecdote about how his initial disappointment at failing to win the part of Dr David Bowman in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) soon turned to gratification as he learned that Stanley Kubrick was looking to cast an actor who was in no way interesting – something that nobody could possibly say of Reynolds. Of course, though, Kubrick was right, and Keir Dullea’s undistracting blankness was perfect for Bowman. Ben Cross, perhaps best known for playing Harold Abrahams in Hugh Hudson’s Chariots of Fire (1981), is another of cinema’s Dulleas – an actor for whom showboating histrionics are entirely alien, and who therefore disappears not just into his rôles, but even into his films. It is an acting style that may barely even register with some viewers, but it does serve Cross well as the protagonist of Camilo Vila’s The Unholy, in which Cross’ everyman – the messianic cypher Father John Michael – becomes the unexpected vehicle for all manner of myths and miracles. It probably helps that Cross once, aged 12, played Jesus in a school play, and that his very surname is a coded signifier of Christian ideology.

The Unholy is a story about stories. It opens with a priest, Father Dennis (Ruben Rabasa), being first seduced and then murdered by a flame-haired succubus (Nicole Fortier) at the altar of the St Agnes church in New Orleans. This is quickly followed by another sequence in which young Father Michael arrives to the scene of a car accident, where a dying stranger addresses him by name and warns him, “You’re in danger – she wants you!” (with a graffiti in the background reading, “Suicides have sex with demons from hell”). The next sequence, expressly set three years later, sees Michael pushed from a tall building as he tries to draw jumper Claude (Peter Frechette) back from the edge – but miraculously surviving the fall without a single bone broken, or “any injuries whatsoever.” This leads Archbishop Mosely (Hal Holbrook) and old blind Father Silva (Trevor Howard, in his last rôle) to believe that Michael is ‘the one’ that they have been awaiting, and to assign him, despite his youth, to run the cursed St Agnes (where not one but two priestly predecessors had met with sticky ends). 

Unfolding in rapid succession, these three episodes seem disconnected, demanding a degree of active synthesis from the viewer just to make sense of them. They are also suggestive of the supernatural and the magical, even if Michael, a somewhat wooden figure who professes not to believe in the wilder stories of the Bible or ‘demon mumbo jumbo’, grounds everything in an earthy reality. Yet as Michael becomes involved with Millie (Jill Carroll), a young virgin runaway who knew Father Dennis and who has fallen in with a gimmicky club that she describes as Satanic, he finds his own life struggles of sexual temptation and chaste resistance playing out as both Old and New Testament mythos, with his personal demons assuming monstrous form. 

As such, The Unholy, like The Exorcist (1973) before it, locates the obscurities of Christian doctrine in the contemporary and the everyday. It simultaneously reduces religious teachings to genre thrills (the twentieth century’s chief narrative mode for conveying the supernatural), while elevating Michael as a modern-day embodiment of the Archangel Michael and of Jesus too. It’s all at once deadly serious and utterly silly – and while, with its cheesy and hardly convincing effects, the ending of the theatrical cut is, like so many popular expressions of religious content, on the kitsch side, an earlier director’s cut (included as an extra on the Lionsgate disc) is more abstract, impressionistic and earnest. Perhaps the truth lies somewhere in between these two poles. After all, one priest’s prosaic struggle neither to break his vows nor to exploit sexually a young ward is another’s epic, eternal battle between good and evil – and The Unholy tells it both ways…

© Anton Bitel