Director: Evan Spiliotopoulos
Notable Cast: Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Cricket Brown, William Sadler, Cary Elwes
Dropping a Christianity-based religious horror film is a relatively regular occurrence, but having the audacity to release it to theaters on Easter weekend is priceless. That’s just what happened with The Unholy, the latest venture into horror for Sam Raimi’s Ghost House, and the directorial debut of Evan Spiliotopoulos. Although that release date angle is certainly a tasty morsel on its own merits, The Unholy as a modern horror venture is an act of mistitling. Technically, yes, the film is about an unholy witch, but it’s a film that should have the more apt title, The Unmemorable. It’s a shame. There are quite a few intriguing elements to the film, but it’s overly reliant on hitting the formula beats and shoehorning in jump scares to make up for a lack of cohesive narrative, plot, and atmosphere.
Based on the novel, The Shrine, this adaption of the source material benefits from its fascinating and layered core concept. A disgraced journalist, Fenn - played with the usual gusto from Jeffrey Dean Morgan, is sent to investigate a sham supernatural occurrence in a small town. While in the town though, a deaf and mute girl begins seeing visions of “Mary” and starts performing miracles. This immediately gathers the attention of the world and the church, but Fenn starts to question his newfound chance and wonders if something more malevolent is behind everything.
There’s something distinctively 70s feeling about The Unholy. Perhaps it's the religious horror of it all, but even in tonality there is a distinctive baseline that indicates the initial premise was far more The Omen than the Darkness Falls jump-scare-a-thon that this film ends up being on screen. The Unholy feels uneven thanks to that large gap between its concept and its execution. On its baseline, the film works. It uses its religious approach in some fun ways, particularly in the first half which introduces cult genre actors William Sadler and Cary Elwes as religious figures that seem far more perplexed with the events than ones immediately sold. The performances all around are solid, although it’s the turn by Cricket Brown as Alice that tends to stand out. Her vulnerability and swings of emotion in the moment are impressive. However, as the film attempts to increase the stakes in the third act, too many secondary plot lines feel rushed and slammed into the narrative. In particular, a monsignor sent by the church to disprove the miracles finds his plot ending in the most spectacularly silly way that launches directly out of left field. This is not irregular for the final act.
As for the scare factor, The Unholy mashes together plenty of ideas. There is the religious part of the story, but the titular entity feels more like the previously mentioned Tooth Fairy from Darkness Falls with a bit of J Horror ghostly choices - at least visually speaking. The design is decent, particularly when the face of the creature is revealed, but the overarching use of mediocre CGI, too many predictable jump scares, and a wild third act misfire that feels like a heavy studio rewrite makes Mary a forgettable villainess destined as a footnote in the history of horror.
The Unholy features some intriguing ideas and moments where its premise is executed in a way that indicates the strengths of a different and superior film. The resulting film is a trite horror experience, muddled in poorly handled plotting and character development that never finds it's footing. Even the scares of the film, which could have saved it, tend to end up formulaic and unearned from lacking atmosphere and an obvious request to keep its audience interested by ‘showing more monster’ to grease its seizing engine.