PG Score: 5/10
The Unholy was released in U.S. theaters on 4/2/21
The Unholy is not a bad first showing from the director’s chair for Evan Spiliotopoulos, but it is unable to push past the bounds of standard fare.
Based upon the novel Shrine by James Herbert, the story centers on Alice (Cricket Brown), a hearing-impaired girl who is allegedly visited by the Virgin Mary and subsequently able to hear, speak, and heal the sick. As the masses gather in the fictional New England town of Banfield in hopes of witnessing her miracles, disgraced journalist Gerry Fenn (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) sees a chance for redemption and decides to investigate the phenomenon. When events take a sinister turn, he questions if these happenings are really the work of the Virgin Mary or something much darker.
Recycled Material and Cheap Thrills
The film starts off on a high note and seemingly sets the tone for effective horror to come. However, this gleefully unsettling introduction merely functions as a reminder of what could have been. The Unholy quickly loses traction as it proceeds to unload virtually every religious horror cliché in the book. Each set piece has been done before in some form, and there is little deviation from the path laid out by previous entries in the genre. The rehashing makes Spiliotopoulos’ directorial debut predictable and therefore, not very scary at all. The writer/director’s shameless reliance on recycled material puts a real damper on the eerie setup and is likely to have audiences (and maybe even the man himself) wishing he began his filmmaking career with a more daring plunge.
The movie’s unoriginal techniques are rivaled only by its cheap scare tactics, which together make for a disappointing and boring combination. A creepy and well-designed atmosphere coupled with disturbing imagery and sound design play a big hand in making the first few scenes stand out. Rather than strive to channel that same energy throughout, Spiliotopoulos resorts to jump scares and gimmicky camera tricks. Playing it safe proves to be his undoing as the formulaic fright attempts often fall well short of the mark. Even if a bolder approach failed to achieve the desired result, it is hard to believe it would not have better served the film.
Flat Characters and Writing
The time in between each supernatural segment is not much better. The characters in The Unholy are not all that interesting, and the writing frequently follows suit. Many times, the dialogue aims for ominous and thought-provoking but instead lands somewhere between cheesy and meaningless. To make matters worse, there is minimal comedic relief. Thankfully, Morgan’s Gerry Fenn provides a few well-delivered quips to avoid a total loss in that department.
While the movie possesses its fair share of negatives, there are a few encouraging aspects along the way. Outside of the jump scare portions, some of the shots and lighting capture the small-town horror aesthetic quite well and add a welcomed sense of immersion. Additionally, the climax partially sidesteps the tropes that bog down much of what comes before it. Regardless of its quality, at least the finale covers a bit of new ground.
Jeffrey Dean Morgan is well within his wheelhouse as the wisecracking journalist. His character’s troubled backstory and unyielding cynicism are conveyed well enough by The Walking Dead star. His performance is far from memorable but that is primarily due to the material he is given to work with. For all its shortcomings, the movie substantiates that he certainly has the acting chops to be the leading man in a blockbuster.
In her feature film debut, Cricket Brown delivers an adequate performance as the mysterious messiah, Alice. She displays the appropriate shock and conflicted outlook her character experiences after her supposed biblical encounter. While she does not necessarily stand out, the actress exhibits enough potential to warrant excitement regarding future roles.
Just Another Horror Flick
Despite a relatively strong opening, Spiliotopoulos’ lack of risk-taking prevents The Unholy from escaping the confines of mediocrity.