I admit approaching Catholic-themed horror movies with a sense of trepidation. Many of them are so similar, as is the way they often exploit religious imagery for cheap shock value. The Rite, The Nun, Stigmata – all use Catholicism as a prop. They purport to be serious films, yet their tawdry tones betray that assertion. The Unholy, therefore, is a very pleasant surprise. The movie is not without its flaws, but at least it takes the concepts of faith, miracles, and the insidiousness of evil seriously. That makes it consistently interesting.
Gerry Fenn (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) is a disgraced journalist now reduced to chasing after tabloid-level stories. During a visit to a small Massachusetts town, he has the luck of witnessing it when deaf teenager Alice (Cricket Brown) abruptly sees the Virgin Mary and then begins speaking for the first time in her life. Word gets around, and soon everyone is coming to the tree where it happened. Alice not only continues to speak, she also heals other people, including her priest uncle, Father Hagan (William Sadler). Even doubter Gerry starts to believe a miracle has occurred, although the local Bishop (Cary Elwes) insists on carrying out a Vatican-sponsored investigation first.
What happens next needs to be worded carefully. Events transpire that suggest it's not actually the Virgin Mary speaking to Alice, but rather something more sinister. At one point, Father Hagan quotes Martin Luther, saying, “Whenever God builds a church, Satan builds a chapel next door.” The Unholy digs into that idea, building to the notion that an evil entity is tricking Alice and others by appearing to be divine rather than demonic.
Writer/director Evan Spiliotopoulos understands something important, which is that millions of faithful folks are looking for signs of a miracle in the world. When the townspeople believe Alice has been gifted with speech, or when a little boy with Muscular Dystrophy can suddenly walk, it cranks their faith up several notches. That, in turn makes them more vulnerable to a wolf in sheep's clothing. The movie hits an excellent balance in celebrating the sincerity of faith and showing how a failure to occasionally question it can lead to problems. You really think about good and evil as a result.
One of the most engrossing ideas The Unholy has is the implication that Gerry's presence is not coincidental. He's there at the beginning of Alice's journey and at the end of her ordeal, possibly for a reason both times. Jeffrey Dean Morgan wisely plays the role with subtlety. Overdoing his performance would have made the end of Gerry's arc forced, as opposed to natural. We feel that the character truly has been affected by the story's events.
There are a number of areas in which The Unholy could have been improved. Alice's doctor, played by Katie Aselton, is nothing more than an "I'm here to help the man" stereotype. An R rating might have allowed the potency of demons to be depicted with additional power. And Cary Elwes should never, ever be asked to do a Boston accent. With these issues addressed, the film would have been an all-timer in the religious horror department.
Nevertheless, The Unholy works sufficiently well thanks to a couple decent jump scares and an admirable willingness to explore the role faith plays in the lives of believers.
out of four
The Unholy is rated PG-13 for violent content, terror and some strong language. The running time is 1 hour and 40 minutes.