The Unholy (2021)

Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Katie Aselton in "The Unholy" (image courtesy Screen Gems) 



Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Katie Aselton, William Sadler, Cricket Brown, Diogo Morgado, Cary Elwes, Celeste Oliva, Kiara Pichardo, Janelle Feigley

Directed by Evan Spiliotopoulos

As a big fan of horror, but not of computer-generated effects (CGI), the debut feature from writer-director Evan Spiliotopoulos gets a hall pass. Based on the 1983 novel “Shrine” by English writer James Herbert, and produced by Sam Raimi, “The Unholy” benefits from Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s performance as a disgraced journalist-skeptic, and a captivating storyline that revolves around Marian apparitions of the Virgin Mary. Of course, something sinister is at play and so the film becomes a frightening supernatural-investigative journalism hybrid. Jump scares substitute real tension, but the CGI effects are creepy as hell.

“The Unholy” opens with a quick prelude that takes place in 1845. Evil is dealt with by the citizens of Banfield, a small New England town. It may seem that we are about to witness another horror film that’s based on the townsfolk’s unfounded sins of the past, however, in this case, we may be dealing with the real thing. As Dana Carvey’s Church Lady would say, "Could it be...SATAN?!"

Jeffrey Dean Morgan plays Gerry Fenn, a Boston reporter who was once at the top of his game earning $6k per article. That was 10 years ago. Now he’s lucky to get $150 after falling from grace when he got busted fabricating stories to remain in the limelight. The climb to the top is hard but it’s harder to stay on top. Gerry went from working for The Examiner and The Guardian to a small, offbeat publication that covers stories like his latest assignment, cattle mutilations by little green men, or possibly a teenager who loves Metallica.

Gerry's latest assignment puts him in Banfield, where evil reared its ugly head over a century ago. Now the farming community resembles the place that Blake Shelton sings about.

Right outside of this one church town

There's a gold dirt road to a whole lot of nothin'

Got a deed to the land, but it ain't my ground

This is God's country…

Trees have played a prominent role in horror. Who could forget the child-snatching tree in “Poltergeist” or the Tree of the Dead in “Sleepy Hollow?” And then there’s the 50ft hardwood constructed for “The Conjuring” prominently featured on the film’s poster. FYI, composer Joseph Bishara who scored the James Wan film handles similar duties for “The Unholy” which features its own menacing tree in the middle of a field.

Newcomer Cricket Brown (we’ll be seeing a lot more of her after this performance) plays a deaf-mute teenager named Alice who lives with her uncle, local pastor Father Hagan (the always terrific William Sadler) who oversees the picture-perfect small-town Catholic Church with its prominent white steeple. There is a scene in the film that recalls John Carpenter’s “The Fog” as Father Hagen uncovers a major clue in the church basement that explains what may be happening in Banfield just as Hal Holbrook’s Father Malone did in the 1980 horror classic.

When Gerry first encounters Alice she is speaking to an invisible force at the base of the tree and then passes out. At first, no believes Gerry because Alice has always been a deaf-mute, but all that changes when she begins speaking to the congregation revealing that the Virgin Mary paid her visit and healed her.

Alice begins performing her own miracles including the healing of a young boy in a wheelchair who begins to walk. The miracle is witnessed by Gerry, Father Hagan, and Alice’s doctor Natalie Gates (Katie Aselton) as well as the town’s residents, and soon the news spreads and the faithful begin to flock to the New England town to get a glimpse of Alice and worship the Blessed Mother as others have done in pilgrimages to shrines in Fatima, Lourdes, and Medjugorje.

The story becomes Gerry’s comeback meal ticket after getting exclusive rights to Alice's story granted by Bishop Gyles (Cary Elwes) who is overseeing the miraculous events as the spokesperson for the Catholic Church. Diogo Morgado plays Monsignor Delgarde, a papal official assigned by the church to investigate the Virgin Mary’s apparitions, he is known for disproving various so-called “miraculous” events.

As far as quotes go, “The Unholy” packs a few doozies including a Martin Luther reference spoken by Father Hagen, “When God builds a church, the Devil builds a chapel next door,” and “Wherever God goes the Unholy follows.” It’s the classic good vs evil struggle at play in the film that is being released on Good Friday, one of the holiest days of the year for Christians. The timing may seem odd but then again “The Exorcist” was released Christmas of 1973.

Spiliotopoulos relies on jump scares to administer the frights. Usually, I’ll blast a film for the cheap scares over real tension and then there are the CGI effects in place over practical effects which also aren’t my thing, but they are the standard in modern horror. In my book “The Exorcist” remains the most frightening film of all time and just look at what Dick Smith achieved with just makeup. “The Unholy” features legitimate frightening visuals and the CGI is first-rate, I just wish filmmakers would stop using twitchy effects where supernatural entities resemble humans with rigor mortis while using snap, crackle, pop sound effects that mimic bones breaking. 

Jeffrey Dean Morgan is perfect in the role of the fallen journalist while Cricket Brown as Alice is one to watch. Spiliotopoulos provides interesting shots as the camera always seems to be moving or zooming in for a closer look. The pacing is on track, spreading out the frights at just the right intervals, this isn’t your typical effects overkill horror fare.

Evan Spiliotopoulos' "The Unholy" benefits from the fact that it feels more like an investigative journalism thriller with supernatural elements that overtake the narrative during the big climax. Good performances and eerie visuals keep it interesting. Just be careful who you pray to this Easter weekend.

(3 stars)

Opens in theaters today.

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Joe Friar is a member of the Critics Choice Association (Los Angeles) and the Houston Film Critics Society. A lifelong fan of cinema, he co-founded the Victoria Film Society, Frels Fright Fest, and is a Rotten Tomatoes approved critic. 

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Joe Friar is a member of the Critics Choice Association (Los Angeles) and the Houston Film Critics Society. A lifelong fan of cinema, he co-founded the Victoria Film Society, Frels Fright Fest, and is a Rotten Tomatoes approved critic.

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