The Unholy, 2021.
Written and Directed by Evan Spiliotopoulos.
Starring Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Cricket Brown, Cary Elwes, William Sadler, Katie Aselton, Christine Adams, Marina Mazepa, Gisela Chipe, Bill Thorpe, Dustin Tucker, Danny Corbo, and Diogo Morgado.
The Unholy follows Alice, a young hearing-impaired girl who, after a supposed visitation from the Virgin Mary, is inexplicably able to hear, speak and heal the sick. As word spreads and people from near and far flock to witness her miracles, a disgraced journalist hoping to revive his career visits the small New England town to investigate. When terrifying events begin to happen all around, he starts to question if these phenomena are the works of the Virgin Mary or something much more sinister.
Where God goes, the devil is not far behind. Such is the premise for The Unholy (based on the 1983 novel Shine by James Herbert with Evan Spiliotopoulos writing and directing for the screen, making his directorial debut in the process following serving as a longtime producer for a slew of Disney projects), which admittedly comes with enough conceptual terror I forgot the movie was even rated PG-13 and stopped caring about seeing something ultraviolent. I’ve never read the book, but the film doesn’t exactly hide that the characters, who believe they are praying to the Virgin Mary in return for fulfilled miracles (a deaf-mute woman has her hearing restored, a child with muscular dystrophy rises from his wheelchair able to walk, and more), are actually worshiping something malevolent.
It’s practically Stephen King-ish when one considers the Monkey’s Paw horror approach that turned Pet Sematary into one of the author’s greatest works. Of course, that means the horror is mostly psychological with us watching these characters make mistakes that we otherwise might make in their same shoes. The Unholy is the rare example of a horror movie where it somewhat works better because the audience is kept inside the loop.
It’s also a pleasant surprise that the protagonist is a disgraced journalist by the name of Gerry Fenn (Jeffrey Dean Morgan of The Walking Dead notoriety), an ethically slimy reporter here looking for his next big story, going on a moral arc in the process that while it is par for the course, comes with the added caveat of juxtaposing his profession with various men of faith across different rankings. Once word of the miracles gets out to the Catholic Church, it should be a given that someone is going to be up to no good even in the face of imminent danger. Gerry is a known liar trying to make a comeback, and while he may be inadvertently responsible for the events at play here, fluffing up the story and the actual truth come into serious question for what seems like the first time in his life.
Initially called out to report on potential demonic rituals involving animals near a church (something that’s amusingly not at all what it seems and shows a welcome sense of humor among everything else here), Gerry also stumbles upon a creepy porcelain doll with the impossible date of February 31st scribbled across it. He decides to stomp on it and use it as material to make the aforementioned story, which has turned out to be a waste of time, more exciting. It turns out, he has let loose… something.
It’s easy to see why people within the vicinity don’t think too much of it since 18-year-old Alice, who lives with her uncle Fr. Hagan (William Sadler) in the area, is healed of her deaf-mute condition once the spirit is set free. She’s informing everyone that she is now communicating with the Virgin Mary (it’s presented to us with ethereal, hazy white, glowing visuals). In turn, Alice is now healing others. Fr. Hagan is convinced something more sinister is going on, as are we, seemingly not wanting to be cured of his emphysema. Monsignor Delgarde (Diogo Morgado) is also brought in to carefully analyze these miracles to see if they are indeed acts of God.
Now, there are some lame attempts at jump scares alongside a hooded being in desperate need of more CGI work (to the film’s credit, the budget seems to have gone to the climax which does look fine), but it would be wrong to say that The Unholy is even trying to be visually frightening. It wants to get under the viewer’s skin with its concept of not knowing if they are talking to something heavenly or demonic, and in that regard, it’s effective and simultaneously engaging. The story also moves along with type pacing, as a small no-name town suddenly brooms in popularity with Gerry back in business with the story of a lifetime.
If The Unholy commits any sin (aside from sticking a bit too close to the trademarks of modern-day horror grounded in jolts and loud noises with no subtlety), it’s that it doesn’t dig deep enough to explore any of these characters and themes. Whether it’s the journalist discovering the importance of sticking to the facts, an overly villainous Bishop (Cary Elwes), the young woman with a gift, the individuals and families on the receiving ends of miracles, and those not sure what to think of these miracles at all, the narrative is stuck more concerned with hiding the plot points rather than say anything of interest that can’t be picked up from the trailer or this review. However, it does have atmospheric dread, solid performances, and an effectively sinister concept to offset the depth of the story.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Critics Choice Association. He is also the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com