'The Unholy': Film Review

Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Katie Aselton in THE UNHOLY
Courtesy of Screen Gems/Sony

Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Katie Aselton in 'The Unholy'

Shady Lady Madonna.
4/2/2021

Jeffrey Dean Morgan plays a disgraced journalist who stumbles onto a wave of religious miracles obscuring a malevolent history in the latest from Sam Raimi's Ghost House Pictures.

Just in time for Easter, The Unholy offers up satanic counter-programming to sate the appetites of the religious horror faithful. Almost a decade after getting drawn into a dybbuk haunting in The Possession, Jeffrey Dean Morgan reteams with Sam Raimi's Ghost House Pictures, this time switching from Jewish folklore to Catholic demonology in a tale that tills the soil of Massachusetts for its history of charred witches. After an intriguing setup that takes its time building atmosphere and characters, declining to rush the first death, the film becomes progressively overwrought and hokey. It also loads up on derivative tropes that worked better everywhere from Ringu through the Conjuring Universe.

Like much of Ghost House's output in the years since Raimi himself took the directing reins on the wickedly entertaining Drag Me to Hell in 2009, this is a middling effort stronger on production values than originality. (The taut 2016 home-invasion chiller Don't Breathe was the chief exception.) The Unholy marks a watchable but undistinguished move into the writer-director's chair for Evan Spiliotopoulos, whose long list of screenplay credits is dominated by extended Disney properties. At the very least, this first feature represents a departure.

Based on the 1983 novel Shrine by English horror writer James Herbert, the film begins with a prologue in which a young woman's execution in 1845 is shown from her point of view through the eyeholes of a mask, accompanied by her piercing screams as she is burned alive. Cut to her lifeless body hanging from an ancient oak tree in an open field.

In present-day Boston, Gerry Fenn (Morgan) is a jaded photo-reporter specializing in sensationalistic supernatural items for the tabloids. A fame whore with a history of fabricating stories, the disgraced journo chases up a false report of possible Satanism in the sleepy farming community of Banfield. He's about to write off the trip as a waste of time when he finds a "kern baby" in the base of the same tree seen in the prologue. Learning that the talismanic dolls were used to keep away evil, Gerry does what any heedless jerk would do and smashes open the relic, hoping to spice things up into a salable story.

Driving back that night, he swerves to avoid deaf teenager Alice (Cricket Brown) standing like a ghost in the middle of the road. He follows her to the tree and observes her speaking in an excited whisper despite having been silent since birth. Claiming to have seen a vision of the Virgin Mary, Alice says "The Lady" has spoken in detail to her, urging her to share the message of faith. Her uncle, Father Hagan (William Sadler), expresses concern about hysteria agitating his flock at the little white New England church that stands next to the field. But when Alice compels a boy with muscular dystrophy to abandon his wheelchair and walk, word instantly spreads that the oak tree is the site of miracles.

Even hard-bitten skeptic Gerry seems convinced, and with Alice agreeing to speak only to him, he has lucked into a legitimate phenomenon that could salvage his professional reputation. He finds a friendly ally in local doctor Natalie (Katie Aselton) but runs into conflict with the clergy. Bishop Gyles (Cary Elwes) is a crafty power player, calculating what a Banfield shrine could do to boost the flagging numbers of the faithful, as well as his own stature within the archdiocese. And the Vatican inquisitor sent to authenticate the claim of a visitation from the Virgin Mary, Monsignor Delgarde (Diogo Morgado, the hot Jesus from the History Channel miniseries The Bible), seems intent on disproving it.

The character most obviously set up to meet a hellish fate is Father Hagan, and not just because of the late-stage emphysema that overcomes him while Alice is singing "Ave Maria." "When God builds a church, the devil builds a chapel next door," he tells Gerry, pointing out that strong acts of faith are fertile ground for Satan's corruption. While nobody, including the priest, appears to have noticed the religious statues suddenly weeping blood, Father Hagan finds an old notebook in the brickwork written in Latin that reveals alarming information about another Mary from the past.

The balance of investigative thriller with supernatural horror works up to a point, bolstered by the eerie, quasi-ecclesiastical sounds of Joseph Bishara's score. There are effective elements in Felicity Abbott's production design, too, such as the run-down motel where Gerry shacks up, with its flickering red neon. But as tragedy strikes, the Lady's appearances become less benevolent and Gerry starts to untangle the distinction between divine and sinister forces, the movie devolves into cheap tricks and borderline silliness. Nobody should ever have to follow the exit of a screeching ghoul that vaporizes in a whoosh of ash with lines like, "Now?! Now do you believe me?"

One problem is that Spiliotopoulos doesn't make the supporting characters engaging. Gerry has the only fully fleshed out arc, which benefits from Morgan's sly command. His profession gives him a solid background in false prophets and dark truths, making the lapsed Catholic a prime candidate to see the light. Alice starts out strong, with appealing newcomer Brown hitting the right notes of ambiguity between guilelessness and mysterious illumination. But the miracolata's union with Gerry gets somewhat lost in the chaotic acceleration of routine jump scares and jittery, spider-walking apparitions lifted straight out of J-horror.

The unevenness of the storytelling and its set pieces may partly have been caused by an interruption in the shoot due to pandemic lockdown and the resulting difficulties wrapping production. There are some cool effects, like the ink melting off the pages of a holy text, and others that are tired visual clichés, like a spontaneously combusting crucifix. The longer tricky old Mary drones on with her evil threats, the less scary the entity becomes. By the time she starts swooping around, turning the Feast of the Immaculate Conception into a Black Mass, she's become a drag, like the less intimidating sister of The Nun. For a more satisfying fix of New England pagan horror, I'm going back to Robert Eggers' The Witch.

Production companies: Screen Gems, Ghost House Pictures
Distribution: Sony
Cast: Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Katie Aselton, William Sadler, Cricket Brown, Diogo Morgado, Cary Elwes, Marina Mazepa, Christine Adams

Director-screenwriter: Evan Spiliotopoulos, based on the book Shrine, by James Herbert
Producers: Sam Raimi, Rob Tapert, Evan Spiliotopoulos
Executive producers: Andrea Ajemian, Romel Adam
Director of photography: Craig Wrobleski

Production designer: Felicity Abbott
Costume designer: Jennifer Lynn Tremblay
Music: Joseph Bishara
Editor: Jake York
Casting: Nancy Nayor

Rated PG-13, 99 minutes