The horror genre is so heavily laced with religious sub-plots and analogies, that it has become one of the most used tropes in horror cinema, with characters putting their misplaced trust into an age old belief in the hope that they will be saved or cleaned of a spiritual entity.
Most stories in horror movies utilize the adage of good vs evil and the light against the dark, as one person is pitted against a force, spirit or entity. Religion can also be used as a central plot point or a device used to move the story forward when a character discovers their faith and uses it in their quest to defeat the evil spirit haunting them.
Religious horror films can be a tricky thing since the bar has been set so high after the likes of “Rosemary’s Baby”, “The Exorcist” and “The Omen”. One of the frequented in the genre is the Catholic themed horror movie, that includes “The Rite”, “The Nun” and “Stigmata”, who all use Catholicism as a prop. The new religious horror thriller, “The Unholy” is the debut directorial feature from screenwriter Evan Spiliotopoulos is based on the 1983 novel “Shrine” by English writer James Herbert.
The film stars “The Walking Dead” star Jeffrey Dean Morgan and produced by horror filmmaker Sam Raimi (“Evil Dead”, “Drag Me To Hell”, “Spider-Man”). “The Unholy” opened in theaters Easter weekend and word hasn’t been good, but I can assure you that it is a pleasant surprise. It may not be without its flaws, but at least Raimi and Spiliotopoulos takes the concepts of faith, miracles and the insidiousness of evil seriously to make it all consistently interesting.
“The Unholy” sees Jeffrey Dean Morgan as Gerry Fenn, a Boston reporter who was once at the top of his game and is now writing for an offbeat publication that covers stories like his latest assignment of cattle mutilations that may or may not be caused by aliens. But Gerry’s latest assignment puts him in Banfield, a community where something evil occurred in it’s historical past and now resembles the place that all country singers loves to sing about.
Newcoming actress Cricket Brown plays a deaf-mute teenager named Alice who lives with her uncle, local pastor Father Hagan (William Sadler “Die Hard 2”) who oversees the small picture perfect Catholic Church with its prominent white steeple. 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 a visit and has healed her. Alice soon begins performing her own miracles including the healing of a young boy in a wheelchair who begins to walk after encountering Alice.
The miracle is witnessed by Gerry, Father Hagan, and Alice’s doctor Natalie Gates (Katie Aselton) as well as the town’s residents, where 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 Mary.
The story is an opportunity for Gerry’s comeback after getting the exclusive rights to Alice’s story that was granted by Bishop Gyles (Cary Elwes “Princess Bride”) who is overseeing the miraculous events as the spokesperson for the Catholic Church. What happens next is a series of events that transpire that suggest it’s not actually the Virgin Mary speaking to Alice, but rather something more sinister. Which leads to Diogo Morgado playing Monsignor Delgarde, a papal official assigned by the church to investigate the Virgin Mary’s apparitions because he is known for disproving so called “miraculous” events.
“The Unholy” benefits from Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s performance as a disgraced journalist and skeptic. Morgan has been in this genre before in 2012’s “Possession”, which is much better than it’s given credit for and like “The Unholy” it is also produced by Sam Raimi. In “The Unholy”, we feel that the Jeffrey Dean Morgan character really has been affected by the story’s events and he is perfect in the role.
“The Unholy” features legitimate gorgeous visuals and CGI that can be first rate, it can also give us that “Darkness Falls” CGI straight out of the 2003 film. Spiliotopoulos’ sound team uses the snap, crackle and pop sound effects that mimic bones breaking for the Virgin Mary. But the CGI effects on the Virgin Mary can get creepy as hell, especially when she removes her porcelain baby doll like mask. While this is a PG-13 horror flick, an R rating would have allowed the potency of Virgin Mary’s demons to be depicted with additional power.
Spiliotopoulos provides interesting shots as he always keeps the camera moving and his pacing is tight, but consistent in spreading out the frights at just the right moments. He doesn’t gives us the typical effects overkill horror fare because Spiliotopoulos takes on a thriller-like structure, giving us an investigative journalism thriller with supernatural elements as we learn the story of the malevolent being who’s really behind Alice’s so-called miracles. Spiliotopoulos then maintains the rest of the narrative with it’s traditional supernatural elements.
Writer and director Evan Spiliotopoulos’ movie hits an excellent balance of celebrating the sincerity of faith and how the failure to question it can lead to problems. He makes you think about good and evil as a result. In one scene, Father Hagan quotes German professor and priest Martin Luther saying, “Whenever God builds a church, Satan builds a chapel next door”.
Spiliotopoulos digs into that idea and builds into the notion that an evil entity is tricking Alice by appearing to be divine rather than demonic. “The Unholy” is the classic good vs evil struggle at play. With some tweaks in the script, CGI and removal of Cary Elwes Boston accent (which he should never be asked to do again). Having those issues addressed, “The Unholy” could have been one of the best in the religious horror genre, but what we ended up getting isn’t terrible either.
GRADE: ★★★☆☆ (3 out of 5)