Down-and-out journalist Gerry Fenn (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) arrives in Banfield, Massachussetts to investigate a series of cow mutilations, which turn out to the work of a teenage prankster. Before he leaves the town, Gerry happens upon an old doll hidden inside a tree and unaware that it contains the spirit of a woman executed for witchcraft in 1845, he destroys it. That night, Gerry crashes his car while leaving town after swerving to avoid hitting Alice (Cricket Brown), a young deaf-mute girl, who appears to be speaking in a trance like state before collapsing in front of the tree where Gerry earlier found the doll. The next day Alice appears to be healed and she claims she’s been touched by the Virgin Mary, prompting Gerry to stick around and find out if what she’s saying is true.
‘The Unholy’ is an adaptation of horror writer James Herbert’s book ‘Shrine’, which was published in 1983. It marks the directorial debut for long-time Herbert fan Evan Spiliotopoulos, who has had success as a screenwriter on films such as 2014’s ‘Hercules’ and 2016’s ‘The Huntsman: Winter’s War’. While religion and horror have gone hand-in-hand over the decades, Spiliotopoulos tries to do something a little different with ‘The Unholy’. He lets the religious and spiritual side of the film take the spotlight, keeping the horror side at bay for much of the film’s run-time. That’s not to say he doesn’t deliver on the chills and thrills though.
The viewer knows from the opening moments that the Virgin Mary isn’t responsible for Alice’s miracle, or her ability to now perform miracles for others. While the people of Banfield are happy to believe that the Virgin Mary has blessed one of their own, the sceptical Gerry isn’t quite as convinced. He convinces Father Hagen (William Sadler), Alice’s guardian, to allow him access to her for a story and the arrival of Bishop Gyles (Cary Elwes) and Monsignor Delgarde (Diogo Morgado), sent by the Catholic Church to investigate the ‘miracle’, leads Gerry to suspect that something altogether more sinister is occurring.
Much of ‘The Unholy’ aims to unsettle the viewer. Religion is always an uncomfortable and controversial subject for horror films to tackle, but Spiliotopoulos approaches it with understanding and sensitivity. While the storyline highlights how religion can become cult-like for its followers, often encouraging them to believe without questioning, it also highlights the comfort that a community can find in having something to believe in that brings them together. Spiliotopoulos cleverly updates Herbert’s book to show the effect that Alice has on people via short snippets from social media posts and videos generated by her followers.
The cast is universally strong. The role of Gerry Fenn may not be a stretch for Jeffrey Dean Morgan, but the mix of charisma and edge that he possesses makes him the perfect choice to play the character. The real revelation though is Cricket Brown, a relative unknown outside of the theatre world, who knocks it out of the park as Alice. She has such a pure innocence about her that you truly believe her, and I wouldn’t be surprised if she goes on to really make her mark in the film industry.
‘The Unholy’ may hold back on its horror side, although when it does deliver you’ll bring to mind Japanese classics such as ‘The Grudge’ and ‘Ring’, but it is still an entertaining horror that will make you think. The pacing could have been a little zippier in places and if wall-to-wall jump scares are what you’re after, this isn’t for you, but if you’ve read the Herbert novel, you’ll likely to be pleased with how Spiliotopoulos has brought the story to the big screen. ‘The Unholy’ may not reinvent the wheel but as cinemas finally start to re-open, it could find an eager and willing audience of starved horror fans, and it should be satisfying enough for them.
Cast: Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Cricket Brown, William Sadler, Katie Aselton, Cary Elwes, Diogo Morgado Director: Evan Spiliotopoulos Writers: Evan Spiliotopoulos (screenplay), James Herbert (book) Certificate: 15 Duration: 99 mins Released by: Sony Pictures Releasing Release date: 17th May 2021