Adapted from the 1983 James Herbert novel Shrine, The Unholy kicks off this year’s packed horror calendar, with A Quiet Place Part II, The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It and Candyman all waiting in the wing. There’s certainly been a notable rise in chilling, faith-based horrors over the past few years – as William Sadler’s Father points out, “Wherever God goes, the unholy follows.” But does this Stephen King-esque possession drama rooted in the Catholic church have anything new to say to stand out from the crowd?
Written and directed by Evan Spiliotopoulos, The Unholy centres on disgraced journalist Gerry Fenn (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), who heads to a small town in New England to investigate a reported case of cattle mutilation. While the supposed demonic ritual turns out to be a bust, Gerry thinks he’s found his next big break in the young hearing-impaired girl Alice (Cricket Brown) who appears to be miraculously cured following a ‘visit’ from the Virgin Mary. Alice begins to perform her own miracles throughout the local community, healing the sick and downtrodden around her. But as word gets out and crowds flock to the town to witness the amazing events, Father Hagan (William Sadler) and Monsignor Delgarde (Diogo Morgado) begin to question whether the Virgin Mary is really behind them, or whether it’s something more sinister.
With Sam Raimi on board as producer, The Unholy is surprisingly not as scary as you’d expect. Due to the central religious supernatural narrative, paired with Jeffrey Dean Morgan as the leading man, there’s a definite air of an extended episode of Supernatural. The bold, religious imagery and shadowy, demonic presence lurking in the shadows also certainly captures a similar look and aesthetic feel. Spiliotopoulos focuses on psychological and theological horror, delving into the intriguing concept of whether the mysterious force is heavenly or demonic. However the lack of outright scares and gore may disappoint some, sitting in a similar realm as Saint Maud.
The director also explores a number of themes from the novel, primarily the concept of fake news through updates on Alice’s miracles going viral across social media posts. This rise to fame is met with an almost exploitative reaction from the Church, as Gyles (Cary Elwes) quickly capitalises on the sudden media attention. The Bishop attempts to capture the hysteria of the masses – encouraging them to believe without question, resulting in a cult-like display in the film’s dramatic climax.
Jeffrey Dean Morgan is on his usual top charismatic form as the edgy investigative reporter, elevating a lot of the material through his compelling performance. The actor, who somehow makes even the worst characters likeable, once again hooks you into rooting for the disgraced Gerry through a humbling and almost redemptive arc. Newcomer Cricket Brown is also another scene stealer, impressively conveying a true depth of faith and belief that her actions are the work of the benevolent. Saw star Cary Elwes appears to be having a ball as the hammy villainous Bishop Gyles, while William Sadler is a reliable and steady force as Father Hagan.
Other than a couple of jump scares, the horror elements are predominantly more psychological, rooted in a growing sense of dread and creeping anxiety as you wonder who’s going to be the spirit’s next target. There’s plenty of religious imagery turned nightmarish, with statues dripping tears of dark blood, crosses on fire and plenty of figures of Mary looming in the background. As the hooded entity gradually steps out of the shadows, through creepy twisted contortionist movements resembling The Exorcist or The Ring, it’s clear that they’re not who they say they are. Cinematographer Craig Wrobleski also adds a significant amount of mood to proceedings with off centre angle shots, plenty of neon lighting and atmospheric locations.
With solid performances from Jeffrey Dean Morgan and newcomer Cricket Brown, paired with an atmospheric supernatural narrative, The Unholy is a decent return to horror for UK cinema fans. However due to the number of character arcs and themes juggled throughout a relatively short runtime, the story culminates in a conclusion that lacks real depth.
THE UNHOLY IS ONLY AT CINEMAS (BOTH UK AND US) FROM MONDAY MAY 17, 2021