Thursday, October 7, 2021

Does the Devil Really Have Just One Thing on his Mind?

The Unholy

First off, I want to make it clear that this film shouldn't be confused with 2021’s The Unholy, though come to think of it, such confusion wouldn’t cause much harm. Still, today's movie is the 1988 film, and it's obvious that the makers of 1988’s The Unholy (screenwriters Philip Yordan and Fernando Fonseca and director Camilo Vila) seem to be under the mistaken impression that only one of the Seven Deadly Sins matters to God, the Church, or the Devil: Lust. 

The film opens with a priest praying in a church. A robed woman approaches the priest, opens her robe, and reveals a transparent negligee and, well, herself. The priest kisses her and she slices his throat. If you read this and think, “This sounds like a film that I never want to see,” I applaud your judgment. I, on the other hand, watched the whole film. Any aspersions cast on my judgment are wholly justified.

The Unholy is a pretty stupid and morally bankrupt film, but I offer our usual disclaimer: we are not here to critique the film but rather the church and the clergy in the film. 

*Spoiler* Neither church nor clergy comes off too well.

After credits, the film goes off to a different location, the ledge of a tall building occupied by a potential jumper. Two police detectives wait in a hotel room by the window. A priest makes his way through a police barricade on the sidewalk below. “Where do you think you’re going?'' an officer asks. 

“I’m a priest,” he responds. 

“Go on through,” the cop says. The police in this film are incredibly cooperative with the church.

Upstairs one of the detectives, Lt. Stern (Ned Beatty), tells his partner, “No one goes out there until the priest gets here.” (Working as a chaplain in the city of Seattle, I must say the police don’t usually treat me with such unquestioning respect. Perhaps they should take notes from this one aspect of The Unholy.) Stern leads the priest, Father Michael (Ben Cross) to the ledge. The priest tries to tempt the jumper with cigarettes, but the jumper grabs the Father and they both fall 17 stories -- the jumper to his death. Father Michael, on the other hand, is supernaturally unscathed; no scratches or bruises, let alone broken bones or internal trauma.

Archbishop Mosely (Hal Holbrook) hears of this miraculous event and wonders to his minions whether Father Michael might be “the one.” Mosely has been pondering battles with dark forces and so he sends Father Mosely to pastor the same church in New Orleans where the priest (prior to the opening credits) was tempted and killed and where, we learn, another priest died in the same fashion.

When told that there might be spiritual forces at work, Father Michael poo-poos the notion. He says that if there is a real devil, “Let’s just say he doesn’t live in New Orleans.” (Excuse me, Father, I have been to New Orleans, and I think it certainly is a place Beelzebub would hang, and the makers of Angel Heart agree with me.)

After arriving at the church in New Orleans, Father Michael investigates the deaths of his predecessors. Clues lead him to visit a club where probably pretend human sacrifices are made.

A woman who works at the club, Millie (Jill Carroll), seems to have been involved in some way with both of the previous priests before their deaths. She comes to warn Father Michael of sinister forces at work. Her boss from the club, Luke (William Russ), interrupts their conversation at the church and warns them to stay away from each other. Luke kills the church dog and warns the priest, “If you keep messing with Millie’s head, the same thing will happen to you as happened to that dog!” The priest offers Millie protection, even to stay at the church. (Not exactly a shrewd thinker when it comes to appearances, that priest. Is there no one in the congregation who could care for the woman? Maybe he could ask his housekeeper, who's been part of the community for years?)

Anyway, Father Michael and Millie figure out the Devil’s nefarious plan. Satan wants to take the most innocent of people (which they believe to be priests), seduce them, and then kill them in a carnal act and therefore send them to hell. Millie tells the priest that she is a virgin, and she believes the devil wants to catch her in a carnal act, but they could outwit the devil if they have sex together. Then the devil wouldn’t catch them in their “first time” and murder them in the act.

There are so many ways this is logically and theologically stupid, it’s hard to count. First of all, it’s hard to believe that Millie is a virgin, considering where she works and her intimations that her father sexually abused her. Even if she is, wouldn’t it be much worse for her if the devil killed her having sex with a priest she tempted rather than some random guy she met in a bar?

Also, where does the idea come from that priests are the purest and most undefiled of people? Many priests did many things before they took vows. And there have been plenty of news revelations over the past few decades revealing that some priests have done much worse than a random sexual fling with a consenting adult. (While we’re at it, why does Satan in this film always tempt the priests with a demon disguised as a woman? I’m sure there are other approaches that would have been more effective with other priests.)

But the stupidest thing of all is to think that Satan would want to corrupt a priest and then kill him immediately. Wouldn’t it be much more effective to corrupt a priest and have him serve in the church for decades, corrupting other priests and parishioners with not just sexual sin, but sins of pride and abuse and idolatry and more?

Eventually, the same demon-disguised-as-a-woman that tempted and killed the priest at the beginning of the film comes to tempt Father Michael. He resists the temptation, just as he resisted Millie, so the demon returns to its true hideous form and Michael battles the powers of darkness in a psychedelic skirmish that rather resembles an LSD trip in a Roger Corman film from the 1960s.

But God does win this battle, I guess, so the film retains a couple of Steeples in our Movie Churches rating for that, but the priest’s failure to rally people to the love and grace of Jesus -- Who can and does overcome evil -- keeps it from earning more than that.

The focus of this film on sexual sin as the worst and most heinous of sins reminded me of something from the writings of C. S. Lewis. This is the final paragraph from the chapter on Chastity in Lewis’ classic work, Mere Christianity:
Finally, though I have had to speak at some length about sex, I want to make it as clear as I possibly can that the centre of Christian morality is not here. If anyone thinks that Christians regard unchastity as the supreme vice, he is quite wrong. The sins of the flesh are bad, but they are the least bad of all sins. All the worst pleasures are purely spiritual: the pleasure of putting other people in the wrong, of bossing and patronising and spoiling sport, and back-biting; the pleasures of power, of hatred. For there are two things inside me, competing with the human self which I must try to become. They are the Animal self, and the Diabolical self. The Diabolical self is the worse of the two. That is why a cold, self-righteous prig who goes regularly to church may be far nearer to hell than a prostitute. But, of course, it is better to be neither.

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