The Unholy (2021) – Movie review

Last Updated on December 21, 2021

PLOT: A disgraced journalist finds himself in a small New England town chasing a bogus story for a quick buck. As luck would have it, he witnesses a divine miracle that could change the world and salvage his career. The only issue is that this miracle and others that follow may be the work of the devil.

LOWDOWN: Gerry Fenn (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) has lost it all. His career as a journalist is all but gone since he was caught fabricating stories. He now puts a few splashes of whiskey in his morning coffee before heading off on some joke of an assignment for a click-bait website. After his story comes up as a bust (meaning no cash in his pocket), Gerry happens to stumble on a woman in a nightgown praying to a visible spirit. Alice (Cricket Brown) is a young deaf Catholic who the Virgin Mary has visited. Through Mary, not only can she now speak and hear but also becomes a conduit for her miracles. Gerry uses his charm and lands the exclusive rights to be the sole interviewer for Alice. The two grow a friendship and bond over the unbelievable situation they are both involved in. Simultaneously, her connection to the divine spirit strengthens, only this may not be the Virgin Mary everyone believes it is.

Religious horror is a tricky thing to do because the bar was set so damn high from the start. After The trifecta that is Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist, and The Omen, it takes quite a bit of oomph to try and tackle the subject matter in a way that’ll resonate with an audience. That’s not to say that it can’t be done. The 90s has The Devils Advocate, and since I love myself some Christopher Walken, I still defend The Prophecy, while the recently released Saint Maud was able to tackle the struggle of faith in a dark and mind-f*ck type of way. The question at hand is how does The Unholy stand up in such an elevated sub-genre? Spotty, If I am being honest, but there’s actually a good amount of heart here, so let’s work for the weekend, as life dictates we do, and join me for a few beers as we tackle The Unholy.

Your story is only as good as the actors that anchor it, and holy sh*t does The Unholy bring out the dream team for this theological tale of horror. Jeffrey Dean Morgan feels right at home as Gerry Fenn. With his gruff voice, messy hair, and apathetic aura, Morgan never comes across as disingenuous. He can plan a sympathetic drunk like no one else and still has enough humanity to where you never root against him. Cricket Brown is new to me but really sells the innocence of someone who has never felt seen because of her disability. To be given the gift of hearing, Alice, in all of her optimism, believes that she’s spiritually connected to Mary and wants to help others as she was helped herself. Gerry wants to aid Alice and believes in her healing powers yet uses the situation for his own gain. If you ask me, it is a fair transaction, but not quite the road to redemption that we would typically get in a tale like this.

The real standout here is Father Hagan (William Sadler), Alice’s uncle and the one who has looked after her throughout her life. Sadler comes in swinging with one of the best performances in years. Running the gamut of emotions, his struggle to protect Alice while not even looking after himself is tragic and poetic. I could write a whole review on why this man should be cast in every movie, but f*cking Heywood himself proves it himself as father Hagan. Who do we get as the slimy Bishop sent from the Vatican to “legitimize” the recent miracles from Alice? The consistently excellent Cary Elwes. Elwes plays Bishop Gyles and sports one helluva Boston accent. Though I wouldn’t claim he’s the villain, he is a low-life that is only interested in what the Church can get out of Alice *cough, money *cough.

As far as the horror goes, it’s a bit hit or miss. When the movie slows down, and we get to sit in this grey and cold world with a dark entity, The Unholy works its magic. An October release would have been better, though, as I got some serious Halloween vibes with the setting and subject matter. Writer/director Evan Spiliotopoulos has an excellent eye for location and blocking. The cold Massechtes setting gave a real sense of dread, and when he set the tension around a creepy conversation or a darkly lit hotel room, I was all in, but with most modern horror movies, this was a bit too reliant on loud sounds and peek-a-boo scares. The Virgin Mary or the entity pretending to be her is creepy by design when shown little to nothing. Yet The Unholy doesn’t go the more subtle route and pulls a Darkness Falls and gives us a CGI demon that looks straight out of 2003. Rough CGI plastered all over the third act doesn’t help what came before and gives us a few unintentionally funny scenes. I can respect the intent, but It really takes you out of the movie.

GORE: As a PG-13 flick, the blood and gore are absent here, but this was never meant to be a gorefest anyhow.

BOTTOM LINE: The Unholy loses some goodwill because it shows EVERYTHING. Not that every movie needs to play Jaws and hide the monster (or demon in this case), but if you want to go entirely CGI and can’t spend the cash to make it visually appealing, maybe show it a lot f*cking less? The Unholy is both a religious slow-burn thriller and a standard horror flick with a CGI flailing demon. This will split many because we get a lot to love, yet a particular modern horror polish tries to make this like every other movie from the last decade. In the end, the good outweighs the bad, and the cast sold me on even the more ridiculous parts, with Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Cricket Brown, and William Sadler making up the holy trifecta. The story set around Saint Mary, who may have malicious intent, is cool and kept me fully engaged with a beer in hand. I wish The Unholy went with the “less is more” approach, but I’m confident that this will make up a fun Saturday night during the Halloween season.

 THE UNHOLY Hits Theaters April 2, 2021

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