A while ago I wrote about how the Oscar season was pushed back a few months, which is why we got films like “Nomadland” and “Judas and the Black Messiah” in February. Now with “The Unholy” it’s like January to April.
January is usually the time of year when studios like to drop their lousy horror films that couldn’t keep up on Halloween. The film was undoubtedly opened on purpose last Friday, Good Friday, so the marketing team could blasphemously boast that it opened “on the holiest day of the year.” The idea was to cause controversy, but nobody cared enough about this movie to argue about it one way or another. If anything, the campaign failed because it looked like the movie was out of date when I saw it the next day, and of course he’s a really lame duck now. But nothing wanted to open in the shadow of Godzilla vs. Kong this weekend, so I’ll have to be content with reviewing movie # 2 from last weekend, which has already dropped to # 3.
Jeffrey Dean Morgan plays Gerry Fenn, an embarrassed reporter looking for a comeback. A story about cattle mutilation in rural Massachusetts proves unsuccessful, but he believes he can save his career with a story about a sham miracle involving a creepy tree and creepier doll. He stays in town long enough to be in a car accident and witness an “actual miracle” where deaf teen Alice (Cricket Brown) can suddenly hear, speak and even sing. She becomes a faith healer, helps a deaf child walk for the first time, and heals her priest uncle (William Sadler) of emphysema.
People flock to Alice, especially when she interacts with the tree – her line of communication with “Mary,” presumably the Virgin. And because Gerry was there at the beginning of their interactions, Alice grants him exclusive interview privileges. Sure, he’s got to grapple with an annoying local bishop (Cary Elwes – his accent is unmistakably set to “Boston Gangster”) and a Vatican-sanctioned miracle disprover (Diogo Morgado), but for once he believes in the subject of his story. At least he’s sure of the wondrous things he’s seen. Circumstances may not be as pure as the Virgin Mary suddenly blessing this small town.
It’s no secret that this is a horror movie. So why play shyly? There is a malevolent creature at work named Mary whose plan is to get people to pawn their souls to the Virgin Mary, who she holds for them. It’s a plan I could see (assuming Soul Promise actually works that way), but she sabotages her own plan by letting Gerry and the priest know that something evil is afoot.
She just has to keep popping up in nightmares and getting scared to make her suspicious. These fears rarely achieve anything other than meeting the quota for an uninteresting horror film. Also, Mary has inconsistent traditions and powers, which means we never know what her synonymous with danger and death. Though the title of the film makes her sound more consistent, the way this villain is written is pretty holey indeed.
Morgan and Brown perform better than the material deserves, and it’s fun to stand up to the obviously exploitative Elwes character. But “The Unholy” is too obsessed with the short-term goal of scaring audiences with pointless horrors and ridiculous special effects instead of pulling out something memorable.
The film aims to upset people of faith, but it’s not worth an emotion as strong as outrage. And even if you are not a person of faith, this film is not worth your time or money. Instead, try to see some leftover stuff from the Oscar season.
“The Unholy” is rated PG-13 for violent content, terror, and strong language. The running time is 99 minutes.