The Unholy Synopsis: Alice (Cricket Brown), 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, a disgraced journalist (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) 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. Based on the novel Shrine by James Herbert.
The purity behind religious faith often serves as a great canvas for horror films. Whether it’s iconic staples of cinema (The Exorcist and The Omen) or new-age innovations of well-trudged ideas (the recently released Saint Maud), a plethora of filmmakers have cleverly twisted religious connotations to develop their own frightful thrill rides.
This familiar trend continues forward with the latest religious spookfest The Unholy. Genre fans expecting the scare-a-minute structure of commonplace horror vehicles may be in for a rude awakening, as writer/director Evan Spiliotopoulos leans towards the source material’s favoring of weighty ideas. While never revelatory, The Unholy elevates the genre’s traditionalist form through its thoughtful construction.
Oddly enough, The Unholy works best when the scares are quietly lurking offscreen. Part journalism narrative, part meditation on religion’s battle between spirituality and commercialization, Spiliotopoulos’s script aims for admirably high marks. He displays poise within his patient build-up, establishing an eerie sense of unease that compliments each evolving plot turn. Spiliotopoulos’ adaptation of Herbert’s novel thankfully leaves most of the intriguing dynamics intact. I enjoyed how the character’s tumultuous battles serve as fitting allusions to religious text, displaying a clear connection to the ideology that benefits the material.
A lot of religious films depict their holy dynamics with blind goodness or bitter evil. With The Unholy, Spiliotopoulos strikes a well-observed balance for his objective sentiments to resonate, never preaching to the choir while also never condemning religion’s enchanting allures (most religious films placate to their target demographic, this film at least challenges some of the church’s corruption). I am not religious per se, but films like this can spur personal insights from the character’s connection (or lack thereof) to their faith. Spiliotopoulos’s script occasionally overworks his ideas to the point of blunt obviousness, but his effort succeeds at grabbing the audience’s interest even when demons aren’t flying at the screen.
Credit to the well-suited ensemble for also guiding the dialogue-driven scenes. As a sardonic, half-in-the-bag journalist looking for redemption, Jeffrey Dean Morgan imbues a glowing charisma to lessen the character’s initial sleaziness. Similar to the likes of Robert Downey Jr., Morgan’s effortless comedic touch never overwhelms the character’s insular struggles, skillfully elevating his archetype role above your generic everyman protagonist. Cary Elwes, William Sadler, and Katie Aselton deliver much-needed gravitas to their one-note roles, while Cricket Brown handles Alice’s evolving personality with a genuine eye.
Under all the revolving pieces, The Unholy still elicits some spooky thrills. Spiliotopoulos utilizes his PG-13 rating to re-create the atmospheric energy of traditional haunted house films. I can see the plethora of jump scares and timid visuals annoying some, but I enjoyed how assuredly Spiliotopoulos embraces the genre’s familiar playbook. His use of timing and framing allows the playful scares to land with a jumpy impact.
Even considering my enjoyment of the film’s strengths, The Unholy has some very apparent blemishes. Whether it’s the byproduct of a tumultuous production or a result of inexperience (the film was paused in the middle of filming due to COVID-19), the film suffers from a myriad of technical falterings. Wonky CGI, nonsensical edits, and unimaginative setpieces prevent the scares from truly unnerving the audience as intended. I also wish the film engaged more with its promising conceits. At times, the more thematic qualities clash with the film’s unpretentious horror elements, including a blandly safe ending that wraps everything into an all-too-neat bow.
I expect The Unholy to be written off by many, but those who give the movie a chance could be in for a twisted surprise. Writer/director Evan Spiliotopoulos achieves enough merits to overcome the film’s inherently disposable design.
The Unholy hits US theaters on April 2nd.
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