While the best movies involving this struggle, to me, are morally ambiguous, with the path to “righteousness” up to interpretation (involving, among other things, interpretation of action and intention, conflict of character, the question of ethics, etcetera), some movies just can’t help but present the obvious. Take this late-‘80s entry of religious-hysteria. In The Unholy, pious Ben Cross literally confronts an envoy of the Devil that enjoys appearing to sinners in the midst of sinning, to provide further temptation and thus damning the soul and circumventing redemption. The demon, the titular “Unholy”, is particularly fond of appearing to priests on Good Friday in the form of a beautiful woman, her naked body draped in dark gauze and her red hair sprayed up into the biggest Debbie Gibson ‘do imaginable. So gorgeous is The Unholy that the priest is driven instantly to lust and is just as instantly engulfed in flames.
Naturally, the Pope frowns upon this sort of thing.
So when Father Michael survives a seven-story fall without a single injury—pulled out of a window by a troubled suicide he was attempting to save—Fathers Hal Holbrook and Trevor Howard declare him to be (wait for it) “the Chosen One” who will save the parish of St. Agnes from the Unholy this Easter season. But first, Father Michael must survives the trials of the “Sexy Wayward Virgin” and the “Twits Who Pretend to Be Satanists” and the “Satanic Night Club Complete with Onstage Satanic Ritual that Only Exists in Silly Horror Movies”, with lots of gory deaths occurring amidst all of this. For Father Michael to survive his encounter with The Unholy, he must avoid all temptation, be they sexpots out of Whitesnake videos or semi-crazy streetwise sluts who offer themselves to him in order to be “saved”. In the meantime, odd things happen, creepy angel statues bleed, dogs leap out of shadows, Trevor Howard pretends to be blind and William Russ tries to retain his dignity while wearing ludicrous gold necklaces. And poor Ben Cross is left to wonder how his career could have gone so wrong after his acclaim for Chariots of Fire. Then there’s the “true face” of The Unholy, revealed at the end of the film. Truly, it must be seen to be believed. If I were to say that it looks like a large, painted pumpkin mounted on a sawhorse, you’d think I was exaggerating. And I haven’t even mentioned the midgets in the rubber suits standing in for The Unholy’s minions.
Now, all that said, The Unholy is not that awful of a movie. In horror terms, it hits all the right beats and the gore is plentiful and nasty. Catholic gore fans will find the movie downright reverent in its depiction of the Church versus the literal Satan and the climactic sequence, silly monster aside, will force a chill out of even the most recovered of the Recovering Catholics. I particularly admired the idea that The Unholy chooses Good Friday to corrupt its potential sinners, using the time of Christ’s own temptation on the cross as sort of an ironic window of opportunity. Father Michael’s vision of Hell is shown as equal parts disturbing and ludicrous, but so is the rest of the film—particularly with bits of Italy desperately pretending to be New Orleans (in much the same way stage actors playing trees don’t quite pull off this illusion either) and a very unusual sequence in which a Catholic mass evolves into a Baptist revival for absolutely no reason other than to show that Ben Cross can sing.
Still and all, by the time the credits roll, you will be able to say, in all honesty, that The Unholy was not the worst movie you’ve ever seen. If you can hunt it down, that is, as the stripped-down DVD is out of print. Which is proof that the Devil just doesn’t want you to see it (and if this is the case, it can be argued that he has your best interests in mind).