Review: ‘The Unholy’ (be careful who you pray to)

“For where God built a church, there the Devil would also build a chapel.”

Once a respected journalist, Gerry Fenn (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) scrapes by writing puff pieces for a pittance. While trying to figure out a better story than a “cow mutilation” turning out to be teen vandalism, Gerry stumbles upon a real happening when a deaf local girl named Alice (Cricket Brown) abruptly begins to hear and speak — even sing — after being “called” to an old tree next to a church. She says a holy spirit identifying herself as “Mary” came to her with a message, imparting Alice with the miracle to heal the incurable as proof of her power. Alice’s uncle Father Hagan (William Sadler) has his doubts, but Vatican investigators Bishop Gyles (Cary Elwes) and Monsignor Delgarde (Diogo Morgado) are all but ready to declare the site a shrine. With exclusive press access to Alice and an opportunity to reclaim both his career and reputation, Gerry is unable to dismiss the sinister undertones of what is transpiring… not only to Alice and himself but to anyone putting their faith in Mary.

Long before William Friedkin’s 1973 The Exorcist, audiences have been fascinated with Catholic faith-based horror, stories of the innocent possessed and priests making the ultimate sacrifice to save an immortal soul. Too often, modern versions of these stories undercut themselves by removing faith and conviction as weapons or casting the church as the “real bad guys,” rendering many a supernatural thriller into an exercise in fantasy, rules be damned (pun intended). A rare exception is the 1999 film Stigmata with Gabriel Byrne, pretty much the go-to example of working within the genre rules while doing something new. Produced by Sam Raimi and directed by Evan Spiliotopoulos for Ghosthouse based upon James Herbert’s horror novel Shrine, is The Unholy an example of doing it the right way or another hatchet job like The Nun?

The bad news first. The necessity and over-reliance on jump-scares does the film no favors… in spite of a decent one or two. Some of these boo moments are so deliberately in-your-face, one might suspect this film was intended for a 3-D conversion. Now the better stuff. While not as exceptional or original as something like The Autopsy of Jane Doe, the cast, plot, and music pull together a creepy and atmospheric story with real consequences, light humor where appropriate, and champions adherence to the genre rules. Maybe the trailers are intentionally misleading and/or cut by someone trying to advertise the film differently than it is, but the end product is exactly the kind of film genre fans will enjoy with actors they enjoy seeing in this type of film.

Using fire in place of bloodletting and burns in place of gore, some effects are better than others, but the story smartly doesn’t linger to think about it for too long. The triple threat of Morgan, Elwes, and Sadler are utilized to best effect while relative newcomer Cricket Brown holds her own against their pedigree as Alice. The Conjuring Universe composer Joseph Bishara lends his talents to the soundtrack, including one particularly haunting track used in the prologue (with a reprise in the credits) guaranteed to raise one’s hackles for fight or flight. With the core concept as an allowed or invited corruption to fulfill your heart’s desire, the resolution is not only built-in but damnably clever overall. Of course, a crack in the door is left open for any possible sequel, but there really aren’t many unanswered questions left by the end.

In a non-pandemic year, an April release would overlook a smallish film like this, but with Hollywood still holding its biggest cards from last year, the safety-conscious and recently vaccinated will be happy to find this little gem waiting in darkened theaters until the summer blockbusters get rolling again. Until that time, stay out of the church basement, don’t read the Latin aloud, and think twice about buying the five-dollar cure-all bottle of Blessed Girl’s Tears.

The Unholy is rated rated PG-13 for violent content, terror, some strong language, and knowing full-well the reason John Winchester didn’t feel the need to check in with Sam and Dean on this one.

Three skull recommendation out of four

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