Movie Review: 'The Unholy'
The Unholy had a chance to be great and came up short.
The Unholy is a wildly frustrating movie. The film is quite good in so many ways and quite silly and impossible in others, thus why it is so frustrating. Star Jeffrey Dean Morgan is so interesting, effortlessly charismatic and has that kind of shambling, messy, handsomeness where going unshaven could be lazy or a legit fashion choice. Because of Morgan’s appeal, I wanted The Unholy to succeed. Sadly, the silly is too silly for the movie to survive.
The Unholy stars Jeffrey Dean Morgan as disgraced former big shot journalist, Gerry Fenn. Gerry was once on track for a Pulitzer Prize. His reporting was read daily by millions of people, he was loved and respected and he threw it all away. You don’t know it right away in The Unholy, but Gerry was once a big deal until the spotlight became more important to him than reporting the truth.
As we meet Gerry, he’s doing that classic movie anti-hero thing of arrogantly sipping from a flask and looking upon his latest assignment with disdain and a desperate desire for a paycheck to get more booze. Gerry’s latest story involves a Boston area suburb and claims of cow mutilation. Yes, Gerry has fallen so low that he’s working for some tabloid website publishing stories about alien abduction and supernatural mysteries.
When Gerry finds the cow he’s looking for is fine, aside from a uniquely heavy metal branding, he goes looking for another story. He finds it in the form of Kern Doll. The Kern Doll is an ancient farming legend. Farmers used to bury Kern Dolls in their fields to bring a good harvest. However, the dark side of the Kern Doll had people trapped inside them, their soul forever encased in the body of a porcelain doll.
To make a story, Gerry finds a Kern Doll in an ancient tree. The doll is wrapped in chains and carries a note dating it to 1845. To make a better story, Gerry smashes the dolls head and writes a story about the legend. However, he also, unknowingly released a cursed soul. The cursed soul travels to the nearest home where the niece of the local preacher, Father Hagen (William Sadler), Alice (Cricket Brown) lives. Alice is deaf and mute but when Gerry encounters her in the middle of the road, late that night, as he’s headed back to Boston, she’s speaking and praying.
Alice claims to have been visited by ‘Mary’ and she, along with everyone else in this small town, is ready to believe it is the Virgin Mary of the Bible. It’s certainly convincing since she’s gone from a lifetime of being deaf and mute to speaking and even singing as if she’d done it her whole life. It gets crazier when she heals a boy with Muscular Dystrophy and even the local doctor, Dr. Natalie Gates (Katie Aselton), is convinced that Alice is legit.
Suddenly, Gerry is thrust into the spotlight again as Alice refuses to speak to anyone in the media other than him. According to Alice, Mary chose Gerry because of his sincere desire for redemption from his past. The reality is, Mary senses the corruption from Gerry’s past and uses his opportunism as a way to control how Alice reaches the masses. Basically, she sees Gerry as someone easy to manipulate based on his corrupt past.
The storyline about Gerry being corrupt and easy to manipulate and him having to outsmart the demon while confessing to the shortcomings that ended his career a decade earlier is a smart spin on the well-worn demon possession story. What stinks about it however, is the whole demon thing. Mary, the demon, is shown to us and it’s so boring.
Mary the demon appears in a series of awful, uninspired jump scares. She’s basically the Nun from The Nun, she’s wearing religious robes, has sharp fingernails and leaps out and goes boo! I was so bummed that the makers of The Unholy went with such a boring and uninteresting villain. The demon also enacts all of the idiotic clichés of movies like The Nun where the big bad repeatedly appears but then decides against killing whoever they appear to.
Screenwriters love to write scenes where the big bad demon/ghost/thing appears behind someone only to then turn into a prankster who knocks things over for kicks or leaps at the good guy but only to scare them. Mary repeatedly appears to Gerry but chooses to adhere to the unspoken rule of main characters. This is the rule that ruins so many demon movies. The demons are all apparently aware of who our main character is and are thus barred from even attempting to harm them until the climax where they inevitably try and fail.
It’s such a shame because, as I mentioned before, so much of The Unholy is really good. Katie Aselton and William Sadler are terrific supporting players for Morgan, while Cricket Brown is a refreshing victim of Mary’s lies. The direction by Evan Spiliotopoulos is crisp and witty and I really liked the faith aspect of the movie, the way the movie takes religion seriously. Often religious types are treated as rubes in movies like The Unholy and that isn’t entirely the case here.
There is one rube and sadly, he is played quite poorly by Cary Elwes. I love Cary Elwes, I recently wrote about my 5 favorite Cary Elwes performances in honor of the release of this movie. Elwes is awful in The Unholy. Affecting one of the worst Boston accents ever put on film, Elwes delivers a bizarre and misguided performance as the Archbishop of Boston who comes to the small town and becomes obsessed with Alice’s visions of Mary.
Elwes’ performance borders on comedy which is a good indication of just how bad it is. I’m sure Cary Elwes was fully aware that this was a horror movie and not a comedy and yet, his performance is pitched as if he were making a Hot Shots level spoof of movies like The Unholy. If he laid his performance on any thicker, he’d sink the whole movie. We can thank COVID-19 which interrupted production on The Unholy for limiting Elwes’ screen time. Elwes was trapped in Scotland when the pandemic started and he was unable to return to finish his role in The Unholy. His final scenes were shot overseas and shoehorned into the movie.
The Unholy opens in theaters on April 2nd.
About the Creator
Hello, my name is Sean Patrick He/Him, and I am a film critic and podcast host for Everyone's a Critic Movie Review Podcast. I am a voting member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association, the group behind the annual Critics Choice Awards.
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