Review: The Unholy

Director: Evan Spiliotopoulos

Stars: Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Cricket Brown, William Sadler

The Unholy is comfortably one of the worst films I’ve seen in my entire life, but I had so much fun.

Well, a bit of fun.

Well, I stayed ’til the end. Let me explain a bit.

I’ve been writing this blog/site for going on 9 years now. There are over a 1,000 entries. In doing so, I’ve become an addict. An addict of the cinema. Standard practice before you-know-what? I’d go twice a week on average. To the multiplexes. To little boutique hideaways in art centres. I’d go where the movies took me. Then, of course, COVID happened.

Watching movies at home is fine. It’s convenient. You can pause, look away even. It’s non-committal. I could even start making notes for a review (shh) while a film was still playing. But nothing matches the magic of the cinema. The darkness. The volume. The spectacle. The absolute gamble of whether you’ll get a good, conscientious audience or not. Movies are alive at the movies. Nothing compares.

This week in the UK a majority of restrictions eased, causing much relief. Among other things, cinemas reopened. My sanctuaries. And, with both sets of neighbours deciding that it’s high time they threw house parties, I turned to my sanctuaries. I went and saw The Unholy, which had piqued my interest anyway because, hey, I’m a horror hound.

One of the things that ultimately makes The Unholy one of the worst films I’ve seen in my entire life (that phrase bares repeating) is that it really didn’t have to be. For a short while, at least, there’s plenty of potential in this daft little pious pot-boiler.

Jeffrey Dean Morgan does his best befuddled-Jeff Goldblum impression as disgraced fake-news journalist and raging alcoholic Gerry Fenn; once a star reporter, now a freelancing huckster despatched to catalogue rejected ideas from The X-Files. His latest tip takes him to Banfield, Massachusetts, where reports of cattle mutilations cause him to stumble upon, seemingly, a genuine faith healer.

Deaf-mute Alice (Cricket Brown – a budget Chloe Grace Moretz) has been touched by the hand of Mary, aka ‘The Lady’ and now, at the site of a stark, desiccated tree, has the power to cure all manner of ills, to hear and to speak in the name of her saviour. Never mind that it’s the exact spot that Fenn himself smashed apart a creepy doll from 1845, spilling the ashes of a heretic woman burned at the stake there with a mask hammered onto her face. WHAT COULD GO WRONG?

My tone is filled with snark, but honestly this opening stretch is the best The Unholy has to offer. There’s intrigue and a modicum of genuine thought. It’s not the wry observational deftness of Jessica Hausner’s Lourdes, but this take on miraculous healing engages. And, aside from the odd forced Dutch angle, director Ewan Spiliotopolous seems to have an eye for an elegant frame. At times it looks as though he’s been taking notes from the guys drafted in for A24’s horror pictures. That’s encouraging. But it is not the whole story.

The first worries come when our prideful Fenn starts having dreams that look like cut-scenes from PS2 video game Deadly Premonition. Before you can reach for your rosaries, The Unholy takes a full-on charge into the most derivative and frankly laughable tropes from the horror playbook as understood by those same developers a decade ago. The film’s CGI ghoulie has a glossy sheen that renders it goofy whenever it lingers in plain sight (which it does often), and the only attempts at genuine chills are orchestrated with the cheapest of jumps. Honestly, given the gimmickry involved, this shit might as well have been brought to us in 3D (which would at least be in-keeping with the stale modus operandi).

Cary Elews arrives to lay on some prime cuts of thick ham as Bostonian bishop Gyles (though Elwes’ accent is more Southern Belle…), but even he can’t tilt The Unholy into the joyous rhapsodies of self-parody. The rest of this cast try their hardest – and Morgan looks like he’s having a bit of fun – but the unbelievably lame ‘scares’ in the face of such earnestness destroys any sense of credibility that the picture began with. It crumbles right before you.

Setting aside for the moment the vaguely misogynistic backstory that we’re beaten over the head with (women are the cause of and the victims of all Satanic suffering in the world, its true), The Unholy reveals itself as the horror genre’s equivalent of Nicolas Cage disaster-fest Left Behind. To wit, the promise of some low-key horror thrills gives way to outright sermonising and religious hectoring, with the kind of aw-shucks sentimentalism and naff contrivances that reconfigure the piece as an off-the-rails episode of Touched by an Angel. The screenplay has no sense of itself. After praying to God and receiving a life-saving miracle, the next thing out of Fenn’s mouth is literally, “I’ve never said anything worth listening to”. You couldn’t make it up.

The Unholy is garbage. Garbage that treats its viewers like idiots, has no apparent understanding of what is and isn’t fashionable (or competent!) in modern horror, and which seems to have made it into cinemas almost by virtue of multiplex confusion over what to reopen with. Sony said, “We’ve got this…” and someone said, “Fine!”, presumably without looking.

I delight in the idea of that happening because I enjoy the absurdity and chaos in life. You fuckin’ have to these days. The Unholy is a woefully mishandled film (one that is deeply torn over the value of the truth), but it fulfilled a time-honoured mandate of my cinema-going experiences – the guilelessly shit horror film that I’m there for even though I absolutely know better.

This one’s a stain on the genre and I don’t regret a thing. Cinema’s back, baby.

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