With a film like The Unholy, releasing on Easter weekend is that classic bit of advertising spite that’s sure to upset some people while making others laugh, given its premise is about corrupted faith and religion. I guess you could put me in the ‘neutral observer’ role that the film’s titular character Gerry Fenn (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) is playing. I did laugh at the boldness of the trailer, but not to be mean to those that might take it more seriously. And, having watched the movie, I can confirm that it is bland to the point it shouldn’t offend many who haven’t already seen a scary movie before.
Gerry is a disgraced journalist, having fabricated stories years earlier and still facing the repercussions. While leaving town after a story doesn’t pan out, he encounters a teenage girl named Alice (Cricket Brown) who begins speaking to an old tree on the edge of a church’s property. She’s deaf and should not be able to easily talk. Her uncle, Father Hagan (William Sadler), thinks Gerry is mistaken, but Gerry decides to stick around as Alice begins speaking, performing miracles on the ill, and claims to be a vessel for the Virgin Mary.
This is a well-known storyline, but the pieces are serviceable, helped by Morgan as a grizzled and snarky guy doing a lot with the film's limited philosophical discussions. Adapted from the 1983 novel Shrine by James Herbert, it doesn’t do much with its modern setting. As Alice’s name spreads, she appears on the news and YouTube, but little is done to show how the world reacts to her. How the Catholic Church reacts is the main thread as Bishop Gyles (Cary Elwes) is all too eager to declare God has created a new shrine while Monsignor Delgarde (Diogo Morgado) is more skeptical. Both are pushed to the sides, as is a fleshed-out story, in favor of regurgitated jump-scares where a hooded figure appears again and again….and again. Sometimes it spooks or slices down a supporting character and the lack of invention or style here is disappointing. Jump-scares work just like cars do. Some run better than others and if you don’t treat them right, they fall apart.
You know where this story is going and there isn’t much fun or deep thinking to get there. Director Evan Spiliotopoulos seems like he’s just creating a pilot for something that could pay off later down the road. I wish that were true. As Alice’s followers grow, the church’s dwindling population suddenly spikes like the attendance in Sister Act. The whole world appears to be watching the climatic service live, and yet, there’s no lasting consequences for the most part. It’s like the film was setting up a bloody ending in the vein of Carrie and then ran out of budget.
There are reasons to enjoy a film like this. Fans of "Supernatural" can watch and feel like the story is a bit of a throwback for Morgan when he appeared as John Winchester. There are instances of potential for discussion such as the fact that Father Hagan’s church sits next to a tree where a witch was burned at the stake. But if you’re looking for anything new, avoid this like false prophets and pray for a better horror film.
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