I went into The Unholy having seen nothing but a few screenshots and a brief synopsis, which described it as being a religious horror. To be honest, it was day one of Cineworld reopening its doors, and I hadn’t seen a movie on the big screen since last October when I watched another religious horror movie, Saint Maud. To be honest, it was just exciting to be heading back to the cinema once again.
Jeffrey Dean Morgan is Gerry Fenn, a sleazy middle-aged reporter who fell from grace after he was found to have fabricated a number of news stories. He now finds himself picking up any work he can get and his current assignment is an investigation into reports of suspected cow mutilation in a town called Banfield. The story turns out to be a dead-end but as Fenn is about to leave, he suddenly starts hearing voices whispering in the wind and is drawn to an old dead tree that stands alone in the field.
We as the viewer have already been introduced to the tree in question following a rather disturbing opening sequence set in 1845 in which we follow the point of view of a young woman as she has a mask nailed to her face before being hung from the tree and burned! Later, as Fenn attempts to leave town, he spots Alice (Cricket Brown), a local deaf-mute girl and niece of the town priest, walking towards the tree in a trance like state. Fenn takes Alice back to her uncle, Father Hagan (William Sadler) and when she wakes the next day Alice is now miraculously able to hear and speak. What’s more, she claims to be communicating with the Virgin Mary and is able to heal the sick. We do occasionally get to see the Mary that Alice sees as she looks to the sky. If you’ve ever seen the Teletubbies on TV, then it’s exactly like the smiling sun from that show…
Fenn smells the makings of a big story and decides to stick around a little longer. Especially when Bishop Gyles (Cary Elwes) shows up with Monsignor Delgarde (Diogo Morgardo) in order to validate the claims that miracles are taking place and potentially declare Banfield as a shrine. Fenn begins to experience visions and other strange occurrences and it soon becomes clear that the Mary in question could actually be Mary Elnor, the 19th-century woman we saw burned to death for channelling Satan. Father Hagan recounts the Martin Luther quote “Where God builds a church, the devil builds a chapel.” – in other words, enjoy the miracles you’ve been given, crap is about to hit the fan.
Based upon “Shrine”, a book by James Herbert, The Unholy is the first feature directed by Evan Spiliotopoulos, who previously worked as a screenwriter on films like “Hercules” and “The Huntsman: Winter’s War,” and Sam Raimi also has a producer credit. There’s a good movie at the heart of The Unholy, but it suffers from a heavy over-reliance on loud jump scares and ideas we’ve seen many times before. Thankfully, a strong performance from Cricket Brown, who plays Alice really helps to lift the movie and add some believability to it all.
Earlier sightings of the demon Mary involved a combination of dodgy CGI and the standard jump scares where she’s either launching herself towards us or reaching out a hand to grab another character. Towards the end though, when she’s finally unleashing her wrath upon the town, she’s a lot more impressive – a tall, cloaked figure, still wearing the mask that was nailed to her face, and displaying jerky, “Ringu” style movements. Things became interesting, and at the same time, the mental rating I’d already assigned to the film began shifting up a half-point or so. But then, unfortunately, something ridiculous happened right near the end to go and spoilt it all, knocking that half-point back off.
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