'The Unholy' Review: A Subpar Jump-Scare Heavy Religious Horror Film In Need of a Miracle

In the 1990s, folks beginning to discover the internet also came across “internet screamers.” These were jump-scare-laden pranks that took the shape of videos or sometimes games. The set-up was almost always the same: you’d be instructed to turn your computer volume up before watching a video, and the video would start off utterly benign and innocuous – something resembling a car commercial, for example.

And just when you were beginning to wonder what the point of the video was, BAM!!, something (usually some type of ghoulish face) would suddenly pop onto the screen with a loud, blaring noise and make you fall out of your chair. These videos were cheap, deceptive, and ultimately effective – they weren’t scary, but they were startling. They also seem to have inspired an entire subgenre of studio horror film – the type of movie where there are no real scares save for the occasional ghoul face slamming into the camera. The latest entry in this internet screamers subgenre is The Unholy, a subpar religious horror flick that has the makings of something better.

Gerry Fenn (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) was once a hot-shot photojournalist – until he got caught fabricating stories and lost his job. Now he’s a two-bit freelancer, writing up low-paying junk that sounds like stuff from rejected X-Files episodes – his latest gig has him tasked with investigating an alleged cattle mutilation in a small New England town. The cattle mutilation turns out to be bunk, but it leads Gerry onto a much bigger, and potentially real story. A local hearing-impaired girl named Alice (Cricket Brown) is suddenly able to speak and hear – and she credits a glowing, saintly figure she dubs “The Woman” for her miraculous recovery. When pressed as to who The Woman is, Alice says her name is Mary.

The religious community immediately assumes that this must be the Virgin Mary and that Alice is now some sort of holy prophet/miracle worker. Those beliefs are strengthened when Alice is suddenly able to heal a paralyzed boy so he can walk again. Of course, this is a horror movie, so these miracles are anything but holy. The Woman isn’t the Virgin Mary – it’s the malevolent spirit of a woman executed for witchcraft in 1845, and she wants her revenge!

So far, so good. Or at least, so far, fine. None of this is particularly original, but The Unholy has these germs of ideas that seem good but never really amount to anything. The evil ghost is disguising herself as the Virgin Mary, and I don’t think there’s ever been a horror film where the ghost/monster/slasher/killer was meant to resemble the mother of Jesus Christ – so that counts for something. The specter wails and flies around in robes, dons a creepy metallic Virgin Mary mask, and reaches out with burned, bony fingers. It’s a neat creature design, even if so much of it gets lost in the uncanny valley of digital trickery.

Then there’s Morgan’s lead character, the disgraced journalist. One gets the sense that a better version of this script would turn into a kind of Ace in the Hole remake with supernatural undertones – an opportunistic scribbler who goes too far all in the name of fame. But aside from a few characters saying things like, “You’d sell your soul for a story!”, there’s nothing really that morally grey about Fenn. He honestly seems like a good guy from the get-go. Sure, he drinks too much and is a little rough around the edges, but a wiser film would’ve made him sleazier and even more scheming, setting up his eventual downfall and potential redemption. The Unholy doesn’t want to take any of those steps – it just wants to have characters spell things out and hope that’s enough. Somewhere out there there’s a better version of The Unholy where a sleazy, corrupt journalist looking for a scoop starts to think an evil Virgin Mary is prowling around New England, and I’d much rather be watching that than this.

Morgan is naturally charismatic and captivating in general, and he’s really doing the best he can with what he’s given. But what he’s given isn’t much. He fares better than most of the cast, though. Brown is satisfactory as the holy girl, but the role is too vague and elusive. A female lead played by Katie Aselton barely even qualifies as a character and Cary Elwes pops-up as a priest with an atrocious accent. I’m guessing Elwes is supposed to be putting on the thick Massachusetts/Boston accent that Ben Affleck movies have made so infamous, but he really just sounds like he’s auditioning to be one of the background hoodlums in A Bronx Tale.

Director Evan Spiliotopoulos can conjure up a memorable image or two here and there. The visions of the ghost when she’s pretending to be holy – all glowing light and otherworldly visage – are striking, as is a moment where the spirit, enraged, makes the ink on the pages of a Bible suddenly run and drip like oil. But there’s a distinct lack of atmosphere here. Nothing feels as creepy as it should be, everything feels staged. Anyone who has grown up Catholic can tell you there are all sorts of creepy, preternatural, uncanny things baked into the religion, and horror movies have been milking them for all they’re worth for years. But outside a few statues crying blood, The Unholy doesn’t even seem to know how to tap into that.

Whenever The Unholy wants to scare you, it simply enters internet screamer territory, complete with ghoul faces rushing directly into the camera as loud noises boom from somewhere. Outside of these admittedly startling moments, The Unholy unfolds sedately, and sometimes incoherently. Late in the film, a character’s sudden demise is so poorly shot and edited that I honestly had no idea what the hell had happened. I wouldn’t even know something had happened if another character hadn’t started screaming. Clearly, their view of The Unholy was better than mine.

/Film Rating: 4.5 out of 10

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