CAST: Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Cricket Brown, Katie Aselton, William Sadler, Diogo Morgado, Marina Mazepa, Cary Elwes, Christine Adams, Bates Wilder, Gisela Chipe, Dustin Tucker, Madison LaPlante, Michael Strauss, Bill Thorpe
RUNNING TIME: 99 mins
BASICALLY…: A journalist (Morgan) discovers a sinister presence behind an apparent public miracle…
NOW FOR THE REVIEW…
The foundations for a decent movie have certainly been provided to The Unholy. It has an interesting enough story, which explores some thoughtful topics like modern-day idol worship and ethics in journalism, is based on a fairly well-received novel (in this case, James Herbert’s 1983 horror tome Shrine), and if that wasn’t enough, they were kind enough to cast the ever-charismatic Jeffrey Dean Morgan in the lead role.
By all accounts, The Unholy should be pretty easy to make good. Sadly, though, it just… isn’t.
The film, which marks the directorial debut of screenwriter Evan Spiliotopoulos (whose previous writing credits include The Huntsman: Winter’s War, the live-action Beauty and the Beast, and – if you stretch far back enough in his filmography – Pooh’s Heffalump Movie), squanders most of its potential on ineffective horror tropes, from the pointless jump-scares to stereotypically dark and moody cinematography which doesn’t entirely belong in a story like this.
In such story, we follow disgraced journalist Gerry Fenn (Morgan) as he comes across a strange phenomenon in a small religious Massachusetts town. There, deaf-mute girl Alice (Cricket Brown), the niece of local priest Father Hagan (William Sadler), has miraculously regained her hearing and ability to speak, and claims to have been healed by the Virgin Mary who had appeared to her in some form. Soon, Alice becomes a hotly-watched celebrity with her own newfound ability to heal the sick, with Gerry covering her actions with exclusive access, but very soon it becomes apparent that “Mary” might not actually be the divine figure everyone thinks it is, and may in fact be much more demonic in origin.
So, as you might expect, there are a large number of scenes where the supernatural entity is simply screwing around with people, like it’s the newest cast member of Impractical Jokers; it will appear behind people in dark motel hallways, jump out from water just to scare them, and even somehow work their way into digital footage for – you guessed it – another cheap, meaningless jump-scare. It’s rather inconsistent what this entity can actually do, because one minute it’s powerful enough to melt the words in a Bible and even cause all sorts of technology to falter at the most inconvenient time, and yet there are suddenly rules which dictate that it cannot be exposed to sunlight or something. I have no idea if the book that The Unholy is based on includes a lot of these things, but I honestly doubt that because all of the stock horror movie clichés that this movie contains just screams of studio notes asking the filmmakers (among them producer Sam Raimi) to make the film scarier than it honestly needed to be.
Ironically, for something that was always designed as a horror story, the horror elements are what really drags The Unholy down (that, and some bad editing, as well as some laughably awful visual effects). Otherwise, there are honestly elements to this movie which aren’t that terrible; for one, Jeffrey Dean Morgan is very good in this, playing the kind of rugged character he seems to usually play nowadays but still with an actual sense of humanity (making this part a polar opposite of Negan from The Walking Dead), and he ends up having a rather likeable relationship with young Cricket Brown, who is also rather good in one of her first major roles. Like I said, the movie also has a solid plot and lead-up, for as Brown’s Alice becomes more known for her miracles and spread of her divine saviour’s message, she becomes quite the celebrity, to a point where her image is being printed on t-shirts and worn by emotional fan-girls. It’s genuinely interesting to see how she progresses from this community deaf-mute into an unexpected idol (perhaps playing on the classic Bible verse about worshipping false idols), and in a better movie I’d suspect there’d be more attention paid to this than anything else.
Unfortunately, because The Unholy identifies as a horror movie, it has to contain a lot of the same tropes and scares you’ve seen over and over, and it doesn’t do them especially well or at least in ways that actually benefit the strong story. Not even Cary Elwes – who shows up with the most cartoonish Boston accent you’ve ever heard Cary Elwes deliver – can save this movie from itself, which not only wastes all of its intriguing foundations on stock nonsense, but also sabotages any chance of making any of it memorable in any way despite the obvious strengths it has. For a movie about divine figures, this is in desperate need of a Hail Mary moment.
SO, TO SUM UP…
The Unholy wastes many of its strong foundations, from an intriguing story to strong performances by the likes of Jeffrey Dean Morgan, on stock horror movie tropes which don’t amount to anything.