The Unholy (1988) Retrospective

While praying in St. Agnes church in New Orleans, Father Dennis is confronted by a demon taking the shape of a seductive woman. The woman tears his throat open, killing him. Several years later at a New Orleans hotel, Father Michael is called to talk to a man named Claude who is threatening to jump from the top floor of the building. When he offers Claude a cigarette, Michael is pulled out the window and falls to the ground. Inexplicably, he survives the fall without injury. After the incident, Michael is appointed to the St. Agnes parish by the Archbishop Mosely; the parish had been closed after Father Dennis’s unsolved murder.


Upon moving into the rectory, Michael is notified by Lieutenant Stern that another priest was murdered there before Father Dennis. Michael finds mention of Millie, a waitress at the Threshold, a local black magic performance art club, in Dennis’s journal; Michael goes to visit her, but she is evasive. She later comes to the parish, claiming to Michael that she saw Father Dennis for confession before his death; during the confession, she admitted to giving her soul to Luke, the owner of the club, whom she claims is the Devil incarnate. Luke visits Michael shortly after, claiming that the Satanic shows put on at the club are only gimmicks, and that he does not actually believe in them; however, he says he’s been recently experiencing supernatural phenomena and begs for Michael’s help. Michael agrees to spend an evening in Luke’s apartment, where he witnesses furious poltergeist activity.

When Michael brings the information to Archbishop Mosely, he is informed that Father Dennis was approached by Millie and Luke in an identical manner before being murdered. Father Silva, an elderly blind demonologist, informs Michael he has been “chosen” to fight the devil, but Michael dismisses the notion. Millie is incarcerated in a psychiatric ward after attempting to kill Luke, and Michael goes to visit her. In a fit of madness, she claims Luke tried to rape her, and that Father Dennis has been talking to her. That night, Michael has a nightmare of the Demon, and receives a disturbing phone call from Father Dennis, who claims he is “waiting for him in hell.” Millie arrives in the middle of the night begging for help, and Michael agrees to let her stay in the rectory.

While cleaning the church with the housekeeper Teresa, Millie is fascinated by a statue of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, which Teresa tells her was salvaged from a church in a foreign country that burned down. Lieutenant Stern warns Archbishop Mosely that Michael is in danger, suspecting Millie was responsible for the previous murders of the St. Agnes priests; Mosely assures him that Michael is safe. Meanwhile, Millie discovers a book in which she reads of a demon known as the Unholy, which seeks to corrupt and then take pure souls. To prevent herself from being a target, she propositions Michael to take her virginity, which he refuses. Convinced Luke planted the book, Michael confronts him, but Luke denies it.

The next day, Michael finds Luke’s eviscerated corpse hanging above the church altar in the pose of the Cross of Saint Peter. Seated in a pew is Claude, who begs Michael’s forgiveness for pulling him out the window. Suddenly, Claude begins to bleed profusely from his eyes and mouth, and bursts into flames at the foot of the Immaculate Heart of Mary statue; Luke’s corpse also ignites. Michael meets with the Archbishop and Father Silva, who warns him that the Unholy will manifest to Michael between Ash Wednesday and Easter, when it will try to tempt and then kill him. In the church, Michael is confronted by the Unholy (taking form as the woman), and she attempts to seduce him, but he denies her.

The Unholy reveals its true form—a monstrous creature—and two mutant creatures crucify Michael. Millie enters the church and is confronted by the creature, but before it can harm her, Michael calls upon God for strength, and damns the Unholy to hell. He collapses, and when he awakens, is blind. As Millie walks him out of the church, the Immaculate Heart of Mary statue begins to weep tears of blood.

 Shot during late 1986 and early ’87 in South Florida, with additional filming in New Orleans and post production in California, The Unholy is a big-budget thriller in the tradition of The Exorcist and The Omen. Though The Unholy features scenes of extreme violence, gore and an appearance by a monstrous incarnation of hell itself, director Camilo Vila balks at calling his third feature directorial effort a “horror film.” “I don’t consider this a horror film,” he says. “Of course, we’re gonna have a demon and a monster, but in a context that’s not going to have teenagers running wild.”

Speaking English in a thick Latin American accent, Vila describes his developmental work on the screenplay of The Unholy. “Originally, it was very much like The Exorcist,” he remembers. “I changed it. I created a myth about a demon that tempts priests during the 40 days of Lent and then, on the night of the Resurrection, does his final temptation.”

A Catholic himself-and a former altar boy-Vila admits that his religious upbringing had a strong influence on his approach to the material. “You never get over it,” he says, adding. “The story is very Catholic but it doesn’t have a Catholic message. It’s about temptations and how deceiving they are. They’re not black & white.”

Barry Anderson sculpting a ripped apart chest prosthetic for the film 'The Unholy'
Barry Anderson sculpting a ripped apart chest prosthetic for the film ‘The Unholy’

Though Vila created the myth of the Lenten season temptation, another aspect of The Unholy’s premise comes from actual Catholic lore. “On Good Friday, they take all the communion Hosts out of the church and extinguish the sanctuary light,” he explains. “From Friday at 3:00 to Saturday at midnight, the church is not holy. This is the time when the demon makes his last strike.”

The screenplay for The Unholy has an interesting history, beginning life as a treatment by old-time Hollywood writer/producer Philip Yordan. Although best known as the author of the cult classic Johnny Guitar and prestigious epics such as King of Kings, The Fall of the Roman Empire and Battle of the Bulge, Yordan is more familiar for Day of the Triffids. He wrote his Unholy treatment some years before The Exorcist and The Omen created a vogue for major horror films. Too far ahead of its time, the story collected dust on Yordan’s office shelves until Vila discovered it while working with Yordan on another project. Vila turned the treatment into a full screenplay and a production deal was struck, with filming set to begin in January 1986. This deal collapsed before shooting started, but Vila found new backers while in Florida later that year. New producer Matthew Hayden brought in writer Fernando Fonseca to polish another draft before the script was taken before the cameras.

Most of The Unholy was shot in Miami’s Limelite Studios, with studio owners Frank Tolin and Wanda Rayle serving as executive producers. The film is the initial project of Team Effort Productions, Inc., a Florida-based company formed to make Hollywood-caliber films in the Sunshine State.

In the lead role as Father Michael is Ben Cross. Veteran actors Ned Beatty, Hal Holbrook and Trevor Howard round out the supporting cast, along with William Russ. The leading lady is Jill Carroll, who plays a young woman involved with Father Michael. Nicole Fornier another lovely-and mysterious-lady. Fornier’s role reportedly required a very unusual bit of prosthetic makeup: The application of an extra nipple on her left breast.

Assuming responsibility for the special makeup and prosthetics on The Unholy was Isabel Harkins. A veteran of 12 years in the business, her credits include Scared Stiff and dozens of rock videos and commercials. “I’ve done lots of ‘doubles,'” she laughs, “making people up to look like Abe Lincoln and George Washington, or bears or sandwiches.” She also assisted creating the elves and fairies for Ridley Scott’s Legend. About the extra nipple on Fornier, Harkins says, “I just made a cast of her real nipple and then doubled it. She’s a beautiful girl. I bleached her dark brown hair into a fiery red and made her up glamorous, the Christian Dior look.”

Harkins served up several generous helpings of gore FX for The Unholy, including bloody bodies both human and canine. At one point, a man is butchered and crucified upside down on a cross in a Satanic parody of Christ’s death. “He gets ripped open from his crotch all the way to his neck,” reveals Harkins. “His heart and a liver are hanging out, the ribcage gets all torn up, and his bones are sticking out. It came out beautiful.  They did it with the real actor and then again with the stuntman the next day. I had to match exactly how the blood ran hanging upside down.”

The Unholy also features the gory slaughter of a German shepherd.  “But we didn’t hurt the dog!” Harkins hastens to assure everyone.  “We had a veterinarian anesthetize him. Once the dog was sleeping, we had to work really fast to apply the prosthetics and special blood I made. It looks very, very real.” And what did the pooch think of this? Harkins chuckles. “He was just licking himself off, licking up all the Karo syrup and pancake stuff. He liked it.”

Another interesting challenge came on Halloween night, when the filming of an accident victim prosthetic job was repeatedly postponed. “I put on the makeup at 5:00 p.m.,” she recalls, but the first shot wasn’t until midnight, and they shot the close-up at 6:00 the next morning.” The delays necessitated constant maintenance to preserve realism. “Appliances start going bad after you daub them up with all the glue and blood. The edges start coming up. But I used some products from RCMA, the same stuff Tom Savini and Rick Baker use. They keep the appliances going for a long time.”

Harkins says she would prefer to work with more lighthearted fantasy-oriented projects like Legend, but for now the splatter jobs are keeping her employed. “I know everything about anatomy,” she says. “I’ve been doing this for 12 years now. I go to the morgue for research.

Creating a plan for the spectacular climax of The Unholy was the duty of special FX designer Michael Novotny. No stranger to fantastic films, Novotny served as production designer on the upcoming Invasion Earth, as art director on Flight of the Navigator, and worked on the mechanical sharks for Jaws 3-D as well as the robots for Chopping Mall. Advance word on The Unholy was that a 6-foot demon appeared at its finale, but Novotny shrugs this off. “That’s a rather pedestrian description of what, in fact, is going to be revealed,” he says. “We are making a physical shape which is much larger than 6 feet, and we have several different versions of this, uh, shall we say, ‘demon.’

“It’s hard to describe exactly what it is,” Novotny explains, “because some of the versions of the ‘demon’ are meant to be seen only from certain points of view. One might be just a profile. Another might be just a background piece that’s meant to be interpreted as a shadow, and another is what I’d call a ‘full-on jeopardy shot’ where you’ll be confronted by him directly.”

This evil entity manifests itself in many forms. “The whole concept is that the power of the devil is at its extreme as a deceiver,” says Novotny. “He’s changing constantly. At one point he becomes a holocaust of fire, with the entire church splitting open and forming a hell.” This last effect required the assistance of Star Wars FX Whiz John Dykstra’s Apogee company to execute Novotny’s plan.

Charged with building the monstrous entity that Novotny designed was makeup FX creator Jerry Macaluso, who has worked under Rick Baker. Macaluso was assisted by Linda Arrigoni, Barry Anderson, and Brian Burgstaller, all veterans of Romero’s Day of the Dead. Working with mechanics built .by Ken Wheatley, Macaluso and his crew assembled the demon by first sculpting in clay, then molding in fiberglass. “It was quite an experience because none of us had ever done anything this big before,”  recalls Macaluso. “Standing straight up, she’s 9 feet tall.”  She? Yes, you read that right.

“You can definitely tell it’s a female. It has large, sagging breasts, fully articulated. We’ve got her mounted on a crane in back, and her arms are puppeted. There’s some pneumatic, also.”

Construction of the creature took over three months, followed by an entire week of screen tests before the monstrous creation was pronounced film-worthy. “There are actually three demons,” Macaluso reveals. “There’s the full-scale demon, then there’s the costume, which is basically for head and shoulders shots, and then there’s a special demon for… something else.”

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The Jerry Macaluso Creature
One person particularly impressed with the Macaluso crew’s demon work is Fernando Fonseca. “There’s six guys in there, working it,” he says with obvious amazement. “It’s fantastic to watch.” The multi-talented Fonseca, who served as the Unholy’s production designer, also composed the music score and co-wrote the screenplay. Fonseca sheds a bit more light on the subject of that extra nipple applied to Nicole Fornier. “An additional nipple is supposed to be a sign of witchcraft,” he explains. “That was one of the ‘tests’ for witchcraft back when the Spanish Inquisition had its bonfires. It was called ‘the devil’s mark.”

Although Fonseca’s scripts have been performed on the theatrical stage, The Unholy is his first produced screenplay. He describes his rewrite of the Yordan and Vila script as a matter of fleshing out the characters and filling in important details. For example, in the earlier script, Father Michael was invulnerable to temptation. “To me, this left much to be desired in the way of dramatic conflicts,” recalls Fonseca. “The demon is trying to get to him by tempting him. If he’s not susceptible, then we’ve given you the conclusion at the beginning of the story. In Yordan’s script, the demon was sent back to hell when the bell struck midnight, kind of like Cinderella.”

Another addition was a background story of elderly Father Silva’s own experience with the demon. The earlier draft had Father Silva lecturing at length about demonic lore but never explained how he acquired the knowledge. Fonseca added an explanation for Father Silva’s inside information and linked it to a new, bone-chilling finale. Due to Fonseca’s innovations and the skilled work of the entire crew at Team Effort Productions, The Unholy should provide ample thrills for even the most jaded horror film-goers. Vestron Pictures will release it this Halloween.

The Bob Keen Creature
The Bob Keen Creature

Unfortunately for Vila, the people at Vestron who picked up the feature for distribution apparently wanted a horror film. Impressed with Waxwork, another of their genre offerings, Vestron contacted that piece’s producers, Christopher Anderson and Gary Bettman, and makeup FX man Bob Keen to shoot a new ending for The Unholy. Keen, who handled the FX on Waxwork in addition to directing second unit, was asked to rework and direct The Unholy’s climactic church battle. “The film is not that bad, it stands up by itself. The ending just needed a little polish,” Keen comments. “It’s still the original director’s and the original team’s film. I’m just doing the ending. I’ll probably get back-end credit as ‘Additional sequences directed by …’ and I’m happy with that. I’m here to help people out.”

For the reshoot, shop was set up for 10 days at the Raleigh Studios in Hollywood, right across the street from Paramount Pictures. The original church set was the only thing shipped in and reconstructed from The Unholy’s Florida shoot. A new production crew consisted mostly of Waxwork veterans in addition to Keen’s British team of Simon Sayce, Neill Gorton and brother David Keen. As scripted by Keen, the new sequence’s main purpose was to provide a more exciting and satisfying plot resolution. “The ending is bigger now, we expanded its scope,” notes producer Bettman. “The battle between God and the devil, heaven and hell, Father Michael’s fight with the Temptress, the question of should he or shouldn’t he be attracted to a woman, that’s a lot going on in just a few minutes. There’s also more action. We’ve added two other little demons, and there’s more happening with the monster. Visually, it’s a fantastic creature.”

The new creature, the demonic transformation of the Temptress who torments Father Michael, is a departure from the original Jerry Macaluso creature. It’s still very tall and noticeably female, but now the demon is meatier, slimier and looks like it’s covered in rotting entrails. Its head is larger and more menacing, with fiery red eyes and sharp claw like teeth. Explaining how the new creature was designed, Keen says, “We started from scratch. We had to simply scrap everything or we would botch up what had already been done. Vestron believed in this movie, so the decision was made quite early on, ‘Let’s spend the money, go back to square one and see what we can do.’

“There were little problems that I don’t think became evident until everything was in place,” Keen continues. “The original creature didn’t have any teeth and had very little personality. Since the scene cuts between a real person and the creature, it was important that the creature move and behave like it had a personality. That was the basic reason for abandoning the original design.”

Keen’s demon began its life as two separate pieces: an articulated head and shoulders for close-ups, and a suit worn by Gorton and Sayce for the long shots. “Midway through a scene in which the creature, on all fours, stalks the fallen priest at the church altar, we decided we needed something halfway between the two and grafted the close-up head onto the suit to make a giant puppet,” Keen reveals. “I wanted the creature to have a hands-on conflict with the priest. The conflict was very important; I didn’t want something that took place with them 200 yards away from each other.”

The finale also includes “a trip to hell which is structured with very strong images,” says Keen. “The priest eventually wins and dispatches the demon back to hell. We built the miniature set (of the church opening up into a deep pit) upside down so we could control the creature’s fall. The camera was aimed up at it, and on film it looks like the creature is dropping down a huge hole. We used the 2001 technique and hid all the wires behind the model as it gets pulled up.”

To keep the film a cohesive narrative, some of the additional footage is being edited into the body of the film as dream sequences experienced by Father Michael. While many who leave the church never go back, British actor Ben Cross did return almost a year later to reprise his role as Father Michael. “It’s difficult, but it’s not impossible,” he judges. “I’ve really forgotten a great deal, so I relied on Bob Keen, who had seen all the footage, to remind me. Basically, it’s acting by the numbers.”

The Unholy marks Cross’ first horror/FX film, as well as his first performance as an American. “Father Michael, rather than being Super-priest,” the actor observes, “is actually a bloke who can’t come to terms with the fact that he’s gifted. There’s a human side to the character. He has a strong will and strong faith, but he’s also very cynical. He doesn’t believe that evil can personify itself in fleshly form. Of course, he finds out otherwise.”

Throughout the rigorous FX shooting – including the afternoon he had to don painful contact lenses to simulate Father Michael’s ultimate blindness – Cross tried to keep a sense of humor. After one difficult shot, he announced to the cast and crew, “I’ve just been through hell.”

“These movies are tough,” Cross laughs. “When I studied at drama school, I received a classical actor’s training. I was prepared for all sorts of things; we were trained for radio. But no one ever trains you to scream and shriek while you’re crucified to an altar, and the thing that’s actually coming toward you is a prop man lighting up a cigarette behind camera. These things are so embarrassing and undignified that you just try to get it in one or two takes. After that, you start to analyze, and that’s not good.”

Puppet created, shot, but ultimately cut from a film. Created by David Sosalla, Rick Lazzarini, and Mike Sorenson at Apogee, Inc.
Puppet created, shot, but ultimately cut from a film. Created by David Sosalla, Rick Lazzarini, and Mike Sorenson at Apogee, Inc.

Preferring to view the 10-day filming as “additional stuff” rather than a reshoot, Cross doesn’t consider this an opportunity to add anything to his performance, “This is to improve the film,” he maintains. “It’s the final 10 minutes. By that time, you either have a good movie or you don’t. The whole film builds toward these last 10 minutes. If they don’t work, then I along with many other people look a bit ridiculous, and the audience will go out laughing.”

Gary Bettman agrees, give or take five minutes. “Often what people will leave the movie theater with is the last reel. It’s what they remember most,” he nods. “The final climax leaves you with the thought of the picture, that last 15 minutes. Hopefully, we’re going to leave them so they tell their friends.”

And just in case there are any doubts left, the final word belongs to Bob Keen, who expects his sequences to comprise to 10 minutes of screen time. “Now,” assures the director, “The Unholy is definitely a horror movie.”

Keen says he doesn’t plan to emphasize his film’s FX aspects. “I’m a special effects man, but I don’t want to be labeled a special effects director,” he notes. “The area I want to develop is the character. How the story is important to the character’s structure and growth is the part I’m going to spend all my time on. If I don’t know how to do special effects by now, and how to direct them, I might as well give up.


Ben Cross as Father Michael
Ned Beatty as Lieutenant Stern
William Russ as Luke
Jill Carroll as Millie
Hal Holbrook as Archbishop Mosely
Trevor Howard as Father Silva
Claudia Robinson as Teresa
Nicole Fortier as Demon
Peter Frechette as Claude
Earleen Carey as Lucile



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