If you have a sense of humor, The Unholy is a laughably bad horror movie. If you’re looking for a film that chillingly delves into the dynamics of religious zealotry and false prophets, you’ve come to the wrong place.
Jeffrey Dean Morgan, who you may know as Negan on The Walking Dead, plays disgraced journalist, Gerry Fenn. Fenn, after being caught fabricating stories to maintain his fame, has fallen to taking low-paying gigs to support his alcoholism. He is sent to Banfield, Massachusetts where he is to look into a report of a mutilated cow. Upon discovering there is no mutilated cow, and rather a cow marked with a Metallica ‘M’, Fenn resorts to his old habits and creates a false story. He unwittingly smashes an old kern baby (a doll/totem farmers would plant among their crops for good luck), releasing an evil spirit that poses as the Virgin Mary. The spirit, now free, creates miracles to lure in the attention of the people of the town. A young girl is given the ability to speak, a young boy the ability to walk, and a pastor’s lungs are healed. However, behind all these seeming acts of God, the devil is hiding around the corner. It is up to Fenn to figure this out before it is too late (The Unholy is adapted from the 1983 novel by James Herbert, Shrine).
The opening minutes of The Unholy were promising. We watch, through the eyes of a witch, a group of 19th century vigilantes nail a mask on her face, hang her from a tree, and burn her alive. The witch’s cries of agony fill the silence. From then on, The Unholy becomes your typical pg-13 horror movie. Minimal blood and jump scares are predictably set in place to scare us. A CGI demon in robes occasionally lurks behind people, eventually revealing its face to be a mask in the likeness of the Virgin Mary with fleshless eyes. There are a couple moments of random slow motion. I like to think first-time director Evan Spiliotopoulos, who wrote Beauty and the Beast (2017) and The Huntsman: Winter’s War (2016), is self-aware of what he is doing…but I’m not certain. The most egregious, yet most comical offense The Unholy has to offer is the reoccurring vision of the Virgin Mary which looks like the baby sun from Teletubbies. I refuse to believe a professional filmmaker thought that looked good. Then again, Cats does exist.
Jeffrey Dean Morgan does everything he can with the script he is given. He excels at being able to chew up the scenery, and I wish the film allowed his character to be more outspoken. Instead, Fenn is more prone to standing in the background with his camera. Morgan is honestly the only reason I saw the film. Cricket Brown plays the girl inhabited by the evil spirit, Alice. She does a good job flipping script between sweet innocence and being possessed. Katie Aselton (Jenny from the series The League) is solid.
The Unholy has a moderately interesting premise: girl who creates miracles inspires the masses, but is it a façade? As more people begin to tune in and believe in what is going on at Banfield, Alice develops a cult-like following. The dangers of fanaticism are evident, and so are its capitalistic exports. Stands are set up outside the Banfield church, selling merchandise from crosses and t-shirts, to mugs and “miracle girl tonic”. The movement behind Alice may be about something greater than money, but that doesn’t stop people from looking for a quick buck. While the film touches on some of the corruption within the church, it ultimately sides with the faithful and looks favorably at the presence of God in this world.
The Unholy is nothing more than a cheap horror flick for teenage audiences. But honestly, it’s nice to see this kind of movie in theaters again; it’s been a while.