When dealing in any genre, there are a typical set of rules that must be adhered to in order to create a story that everyone can easily follow, relate to, and understand. When done well, viewers generally will not notice this design; when done poorly, the model sticks out like a sore thumb. This is especially true in the supernatural horror genre, which is one of the easiest to emulate, but the hardest to appear original. There’s also a high expectation level for the effects, whether CGI or practical, to integrate seamlessly into the story so as not to hinder the overall enjoyment of what is usually a simple, routine story. In the case of The Unholy, the plot and character elements are all in tact as they should be, but some of the direction leaves many of the necessary scares wanting.
Gerry Fenn (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) is a down-on-his-luck freelance journalist desperate to find a story he can use to dig his way out of the hole he buried himself in after being caught fabricating stories to earn notoriety. During a despondent trip to a rural town to check out a mark that suddenly appeared on the rear of a cow, Gerry finds a chained doll inside the hollow of a tree. Attempting to salvage his trip with a somewhat interesting spin, he breaks the doll and makes it seem like a local found it like that.
That night, Gerry almost runs over Alice (Cricket Brown), a deaf girl who suddenly speaks. This turn of events intrigues Gerry enough to stick around, even though no one believes what he heard, including the girl’s uncle and local pastor (William Sadler). The next day, his story is confirmed when Alice walks out to the tree the doll was found and begins telling everyone that someone (or something) named Mary (Marina Mazepa) wants them all to believe in her miracle.
This incident, as well as the healing of a crippled boy, lead the arch diocese to send a Bishop (an almost unrecognizable Cary Elwes) to legitimize the miracle. Gerry takes the lead in the investigation when it’s clear that Alice won’t talk to anyone but him about her experiences, all of which push Gerry to eventually uncover the truth of what’s really happening in this small little town.
Morgan does a good job limiting his performance, taking a welcome step back from the The Walking Dead persona that has nearly infected every performance since he first appeared on the show. By doing so, he helps draw the viewer into the story and emotionally connect us with the other supporting characters. His journey isn’t anything new and every step he takes is right in line with what you’d expect in this type of film. As stated before, this isn’t a bad thing; it’s comfortable. It’s all of the other elements that surround him that hinders the movie’s ability to find its core strength.
To begin, Mary’s backstory isn’t given enough time to breathe. Not only that, but where she came from and why she was imprinted into the doll is more intriguing than the actual story. On the plus side, the characters we’re following in the present are much more interesting than the characters we are introduced to in the past, who all tend to be more rote and stock than the ones in the present.
This may be one of the byproducts of the budget, which from what we see visually, wasn’t enough to create the fear and anxiety needed to effectively pull off a supernatural horror. Most of the CGI and makeup effects were given enough love, but when it comes to the scenes that are meant to frighten you to your core and send shivers up your spine, director Evan Spiliotopoulos subdues their inherent nature with odd and confusing camera angles, cuts and effects. Instead of getting your heart racing, it all simply leaves you confused and a little bored. I’m not one who cares much for jump scares, but even they were unsure of themselves.
What ultimately sells the movie is the solid relationship between Morgan and Brown. Each of them give quiet performances that blend well to give power to the secrets that are ultimately uncovered. Because of this main pair’s ability to capture our attention, we’re able to believe in what’s happening and care about the fate of Gerry’s eventual growth.
If their bond didn’t work, the entire movie would have fallen apart, as very few of the other characters had enough power to keep your attention. Elwes does what he can with his laughably villainous character, one whose priorities are all over the map. You never really get a feel for his beliefs or why he does what he does throughout the film. He’s basically there simply to be a foil that doesn’t really mean anything in the long run. Even Sadler, who is usually a strong presence, was a bit weak here.
The Unholy isn’t a perfect film; there are some issues that probably could only be rectified with a higher budget or a better eye and style. But because of Morgan and Brown, and a script that does its due-diligence in graciously following all of the rules, the film ends up being better than expected, if not a bit of a forgettable entry into the supernatural horror genre.
My Grade: B+
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Next week, new movies include Voyagers and Thunder Force (Netflix). If you would like to see a review for one of these, or any other film out next week, please respond in the comments below.