Confession: I have never been much for religious horror. I blame this on a secular upbringing, which has left me ill-equipped for faith-based fear dependent on devils and possession for scares. Don’t get me wrong; I can appreciate the brilliance of The Exorcist and I can buy into these ideas just as easily as I can buy into monsters and vampires and killer toys, but I also recognize that these kinds of movies tap directly into a certain portion of horror fandom while leaving me cold. It’s not you, religious horror movies. It’s me.

The latest in the Vestron Video Collector’s series, 1988’s The Unholy is one such religious horror film. Ben Cross stars as Father Michael, a Catholic priest who is put in charge of a church when his predecessors mysteriously die off. As the deaths are investigated by a cop (played by Ned Beatty) and Father Michael is tempted by a beautiful woman (Claudia Robinson), more strange occurrences and grisly deaths take place, all tied to the appearance of a demon taking the form of a nude redhead (Nicole Fortier). Clearly she’s a fan of Lifeforce. I can’t blame her.

I’ll give The Unholy this: it knows enough to start strong and end stronger. The opening minutes offer the first appearance of Naked Redhead Demon Lady and a really gnarly gore effect. That’s followed by nearly 90 minutes of nothing much happening but some half-hearted investigations and a lot of brooding by Ben Cross, an actor who broods pretty well. At one point, William Russ (of TV’s Boy Meets World) shows up as a Satanist sporting bleached blonde hair, a giant talisman around his neck, and a questionable Southern accent. He’s right out of a different movie, but it’s a more colorful and entertaining movie than this one and suggests that The Unholy is at its best when it fully embraces its pulpiness. Most of the time, however, director Camilo Vila seems more interested in a more somber drama about a priest struggling with his faith and fulfilling his vows. I can appreciate a horror movie with lofty ambitions like this, but I can also recognize that The Unholy is a lot better when people are getting their throats ripped out.

If you can make it to about the 90-minute mark, your patience with The Unholy will finally be rewarded with a finale that at least cuts loose with some craziness: crucifixions, little people in rubber monster suits, a giant latex monster, some wind machines, and more. I don’t know that much of it works as a satisfying end to the movie, but at least it’s something after a lot of, well, waiting for something. I wish I could classify The Unholy as “slow burn” horror, but that suggests that the slowness of the first 90 minutes is deliberately building toward something, increasing the tension and moving, piece by piece, toward some inevitable conclusion. That’s not really the case. There’s very little suspense or dread in the movie, nor does much of the material about faith and devotion to a higher power land. The Unholy is a movie that dabbles in Catholicism by using the signifiers, but isn’t especially interested in dealing with the issues it confronts.

Fan of the film or not, Lionsgate’s Blu-ray of The Unholy is an impressive package to add to their growing Vestron line. The movie is presented in an attractive if somewhat inconsistent 1.85:1 1080p widescreen transfer. Colors are bold and vibrant and detail is often very good, but often varies in softness and grain level from shot to shot. It’s a step up from DVD and a decent HD upgrade, but not quite as solid as some previous Vestron titles. There are a whole lot of bonus features to compensate, though, kicking off with a commentary from director Vila and Nathanial Thompson of Mondo Digital. There are new interviews with Ben Cross (“Sins of the Father”) and with writer and production designer Fernando Fonseca (“Prayer Offerings”), as well as a featurette on the film’s creature and makeup effects (“Demons in the Flesh”).

Two audio interviews are devoted to the movie’s score, the first with composer Roger Bellon, whose remarks are intercut with selections of his synthesizer score, as well as Fonseca, who originally contributed a more traditional score, pieces of which are included alongside his interview. There’s a collection of production and marketing materials as well, including the trailer, TV, and radio spots, original storyboards, and an image gallery. The most interesting extra is a 15-minute presentation of the film’s original ending before it was reshot with more action and creature effects, playable with optional commentary by producer Mathew Hayden (who appears to be reading his remarks and wraps up about halfway through). The two endings are similar but different, with the original climax somewhat more conceptual and with shoddier effects than the reshot version. Neither totally works, but it’s easy to see that the producers thought they were giving the movie more bang for its buck with the reshoots.

Much as it bums me out to say it, The Unholy is probably my least favorite title in the still-burgeoning Vestron Collector’s Series line. The work that Vestron and Lionsgate have done in bringing the movie to Blu-ray should be commended, as this is an impressive package and should make any fans of the film quite happy; it’s just that the film doesn’t quite seem worth all the fuss. But what doesn’t work for me is going to be on someone else’s list of favorite horror movies ever, so I’m glad that person can now watch The Unholy in the best possible format. Maybe it’s just my feelings towards religious horror that kept me from connecting with the movie, but I’m not sure that’s it. My own complicated relationship with that sub-genre aside, this one is more Exorcist II than it is The Exorcist.

Movie Score: 2/5, Disc Score: 3/5

  • Patrick Bromley
    About the Author - Patrick Bromley

    Patrick lives in Chicago, where he has been writing about film since 2004. A member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Online Film Critics Society, Patrick's writing also appears on, and, the site he runs and hosts a weekly podcast.

    He has been an obsessive fan of horror and genre films his entire life, watching, re-watching and studying everything from the Universal Monsters of the '30s and '40s to the modern explosion of indie horror. Some of his favorites include Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde (1931), Dawn of the Dead (1978), John Carpenter's The Thing and The Funhouse. He is a lover of Tobe Hooper and his favorite Halloween film is part 4. He knows how you feel about that. He has a great wife and two cool kids, who he hopes to raise as horror nerds.