The Unholy

 

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A deaf-mute starts channelling the Virgin Mary in a routine horror film desperately in need of a miracle of its own.

   

Unholy, The

Sound of mental: Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Cricket Brown and an unholy visitation

  

In the words of Martin Luther, “For where God built a church, there the Devil would also build a chapel.” In this instance, the church is St. Joseph's, tucked away in the quiet backwater of Banfield, Massachusetts, next to a dead oak tree. It is an oak tree much visited in the film and, isolated on a large plot of grass, it is the sort of place where children might play all day long. And yet, nestled in its exposed hollow, lies a ‘kern-baby’ doll, undisturbed for 175 years. If you can believe that, you’ll believe the rest of the claptrap doled out in this dumb, formulaic evil-versus-good malarkey.

 

The doll, once a symbol of the end of harvest, is tied in chains and possesses the soul of a woman accused of witchcraft, who was hung from and then burned on that very tree in 1845. Cutting to the present day, the film introduces us to Gerry Fenn (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), a once-successful journalist who, following charges of fabrication, has been reduced to working for a local paper. He is also a little keen of the bottle and is distrusted by virtually everybody. Then, while investigating the thrilling incident of an illicitly branded cow (next to that famous oak tree), he encounters Alice (Cricket Brown), a deaf-mute and niece of Father Hagan (William Sadler), the priest of St Joseph’s. Standing in front of the tree, Alice utters the first words of her life – and then collapses.

 

When Fenn takes the girl to hospital, nobody believes him that she spoke – but then nobody believes anything he says. Then Alice can’t stop speaking – or singing – and becomes a local celebrity. And Fenn has the inside track – he has developed a bond with the girl – so that when she starts healing the sick, he finds that he has the exclusive of his life. Alice announces that she has a direct line to the Virgin Mary, attracts the attention of the Vatican and Banfield itself is transformed into the Lourdes of Massachusetts. But Father Hagan is concerned. As he says, “when miracles happen, the unholy follows…”

 

For any film student wishing to knock out a horror quickie for the multiplex, The Unholy is a good place to start. It is pure textbook. There is the prologue, an endless array of self-defeating jump scares and loud noises, a smorgasbord of grisly sound effects and the usual back lighting and fog shots. This is a shame, as there’s an interesting thesis on faith and religion struggling to get out. Adapted from James Herbert’s 1983 novel Shrine, The Unholy tiptoes into The Exorcist and The Omen territory, and is backed up by some decent performances, particularly from Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Katie Aselton, the latter as the voice of medical reason. The problem, though, is that the execution of first-time director Evan Spiliotopoulos is so hackneyed, that there’s little to grip on to. So the best thing about the enterprise remains the strapline on the poster: “Be Careful Who You Pray For.”

 

JAMES CAMERON-WILSON

 

Cast: Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Katie Aselton, William Sadler, Cricket Brown, Diogo Morgado, Cary Elwes, Marina Mazepa, Christine Adams, Dustin Tucker, Gisela Chipe.

 

Dir Evan Spiliotopoulos, Pro Sam Raimi, Robert Tapert and Evan Spiliotopoulos, Screenplay Evan Spiliotopoulos, based on the novel Shrine by James Herbert, Ph Craig Wrobleski, Pro Des Felicity Abbott, Ed Jake York, Music Joseph Bishara, Costumes Jennifer Lynn Tremblay.

 

Screen Gems/Ghost House Pictures-Columbia Pictures.

100 mins. USA. 2021. Rel: 17 May 2021. Cert. 15.