Clever, thoughtful ‘Unholy’ thrills

There’s a large 3D element to the jumps, with Elnor frequently attacking the camera directly. Images courtesy Sony Pictures Releasing.

8/10 The Unholy is trash, but it lays its aesthetics on thick, the cast is game and the story is deceptively rich.

Banfield, Massachusetts, December- Corrupt, disgraced journalist Gerry Fenn (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) drives from Boston into the boonies for a story about cow tipping, or whatever. While he’s there, Alice (Cricket Brown), the priest’s niece who has been completely deaf from birth, has a vision of the Virgin Mary and is suddenly able to hear, speak and even sing in perfect English and can even heal the sick under her own power. Fenn develops a bond with the girl and revives his career telling her story, but he begins to realize that her ascension is not an “according to Hoyle” miracle and is instead the work of something unholy.

The Unholy is fully aware that it’s a cut-rate jump movie, so first thing’s first – it delivers the goods. The scares in this movie are hair-raising, frequent and don’t interrupt the plot. The monster design is uninspired but effective, and she evolves throughout the film, so you get a couple of different looks. Writer/director/producer Evan Spiliotopoulos tends to hold on her for extended takes, so she isn’t just jumping around from a corner and then vanishing to another corner to jump out from behind, she’s staying in your face and posing a persistent danger.

The movie is extremely reliant on sound design, but it leans into it hard enough that it becomes a boon instead of a crutch. Background noise is a near constant, and it’s varied and tells most of the story on its own. The monster brings with her an explosion of sound, with the standard horror drone, storm noises and prominent animal growls in a constant torrent whenever she’s onscreen. They even incorporate Alice’s background static in a meaningful way.

You can come to The Unholy for the thrills, but you’ll stay for the thematic depth. This movie raises a long list of questions about faith, its usefulness as a concept and how American journalism interacts with it.

The core conflict in The Unholy is that Alice is a false prophet. She unwittingly serves Mary Elnor (Marina Mazepa), a witch who was executed in the 1800s, not the Virgin Mother, and the people she heals are unwittingly pledging themselves to serve Elnor as well. All of this is, of course, predicated on the outlandish idea that God and Satan are in this eternal competition for human souls and they gain power-ups based on faith – it’s utter nonsense even within the context of Christianity, but omnipresent in pop media.

The Unholy, by its very nature, asks, if Jesus Christ was empowered by his father to heal the sick and feed the hungry, what is the material difference if Satan empowers Elnor and Alice to do the same? My mind flashes back to The Conjuring 2, when, in a movie ostensibly based on the work of real-life demonologists, series master James Wan fabricated a demonic nun character to “attack Lorraine Warren’s faith,” and the best he could come up with was an obvious monster wearing a nun’s clothes.

At this point, it feels a little aggressive that Morgan can’t get higher profile roles.

Valak isn’t an attack on faith, he’s just a demon who wears a habit because that’s what makes him feel confident and sexy. Mary Elnor and The Unholy is an attack on faith. It attacks optimism as a concept, punishing its characters for merely thinking that something good might have happened. All throughout the runtime, Banfieldians, especially the religious ones, are suspicious of Alice’s good fortune well before they have concrete reason to be, as if they know any manifestation of the divine will eventually turn against them. This general sense of foreboding against all evidence is another annoying horror trope that The Unholy smartly turns to its advantage.

The film also positions journalism as gospel, with Fenn tasked with spreading the good news about Alice. This makes sense on several levels – the first saints were themselves merely spreading the news of Christ. Because external accountability is impossible for journalism, it too requires an almost religious trust. Even the modern practice of checking news stories against other outlets begs comparison to the gospels, as the first four books of the New Testament are four competing accounts of the life of Christ. In this sense, Fenn, who was reduced to freelancing after being caught fabricating stories for The Boston Globe and begins the film by fabricating a freelance story, is himself a false prophet.

When he is directly posed the question of what harm it really does that people think Mary Elnor is the Virgin Mary, he simply says that they deserve to know the truth.

The Unholy is a blast, but it’s getting chewed up by critics, and it’s easy to see why. The movie sputters out of steam, and once Fenn confirms that Alice is in Elnor’s service, way too much of the dialogue is dedicated to outlining that absurd “competition for souls” idea and how it plays into the scenario they’ve set up. A lot of critics are pointing out that producer Sam Raimi is a horror legend and wondering why he didn’t direct instead, despite this clearly having been Spiliotopoulos’ baby from the start. This is his 10th screenplay and first time in the director’s chair, and he does a wonderful and remarkably Raimi-esque job, but sometimes you can’t satisfy without the specific director the people want.

But Evan Spiliotopoulos’ The Unholy is a delightfully scary, thought-provoking, cheap little film that incorporates tired contemporary horror tropes in new and interesting ways. It’s a great watch.

Leopold Knopp is a UNT graduate. If you liked this post, you can donate to Reel Entropy here. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook and reach out to me at reelentropy@gmail.com.

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