Review: ‘The Unholy’ (2021), starring Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Katie Aselton, William Sadler, Cricket Brown, Diogo Morgado and Cary Elwes

June 6, 2021

by Carla Hay

Cricket Brown in “The Unholy” (Photo courtesy of Screen Gems)

“The Unholy” (2021) 

Directed by Evan Spiliotopoulos

Culture Representation: Taking place primarily in the fictional town of Banfield, Massachusetts, the horror film “The Unholy” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few black people and Hispanic people) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: A disgraced journalist discovers what appears to be a “miracle” teenager, who became cured of blindness and muteness, and seems to have the ability to heal others through the power of the Virgin Mary, but things take a sinister turn when people in the town start dying.

Culture Audience: “The Unholy” will appeal primarily to people who don’t mind watching predictable horror movies that have plot holes and aren’t very scary.

Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Katie Aselton in “The Unholy” (Photo courtesy of Screen Gems)

“The Unholy” is yet another drab and forgettable horror flick that uses Christianity as a plot device for the movie’s supernatural occurrences. It plods along at a dull pace with an easy-to-solve mystery and a storyline that gets more idiotic until the very hokey ending. “The Unholy” is based on James Herbert’s 1983 horror novel name, but you don’t have to read the book to know exactly how this movie is going to end because it’s so derivative of better-made horror movies that have similar themes.

Written and directed by Evan Spiliotopoulos, “The Unholy” has a group of cast members who show satisfactory talent in their roles. It’s too bad that their characters are written as shallow and mostly uninteresting. The protagonist is supposed to be a cynical and emotionally wounded individual, but not much is revealed about disgraced journalist Gerald “Gerry” Fenn (played by Jeffrey Dean Morgan), except for the damage he inflicted on his own career and that he likes to feed his ego by putting himself at the center of a news story.

And because much of the movie’s focus is on Roman Catholic religious beliefs, it’s utterly predictable that Gerry is a lapsed Catholic who seems to now identify as agnostic. What he might or might not believe when it comes to religion and spirituality can therefore fluctuate as he witnesses so-called “miracles” that seem to have a basis in Christianity. Gerry is supposed to be an investigative journalist, but his subpar investigative skills are almost laughable in this story because he misses very big clues.

“The Unholy” begins with a grisly scene of an execution-by-fire death in Boston in 1845. The person being torched by a small, angry mob of religious fanatics is an unnamed woman who’s accused of being a witch. She is bound, gagged, hanged by a tree, and then set on fire. The execution is shown from her perspective, as she sees the mob from the viewpoint of someone wearing a hood or a mask with holes for the eyes.

Now that the movie has given away the very obvious plot point that the mob and their descendants will be cursed, “The Unholy” then moves to the present day, where Gerry is driving to the small Massachusetts town of Banfield. There are empty bottles of liquor in his SUV, just so Gerry can be the cliché of the hard-drinking, grizzled journalist.

Gerry is a freelancer who’s been trying to claw his way back to respectability by chasing down whatever newsworthy stories that he can find. It’s revealed at one point in the movie that he used to be a staff reporter at a newspaper called The Examiner, where he made a name for himself as someone who got exclusives on sensationalistic and shocking news. However, Gerry was fired 10 years ago when he was caught fabricating a news story. Gerry is his own photographer/video camera operator, so there are several scenes of him using a professional camera when he stumbles onto a big story in Banfield.

“The Unholy” is so poorly written that it doesn’t adequately explain why Gerry went to Banfield in the first place. When Gerry arrives, all he sees is the town’s chief Catholic priest named Father William Hagan (played by William Sadler) telling a farmer to get the man’s cow off of the church property. The farmer lives next door to the church and the cow is in a field that’s on church property because the famer has a broken fence that hasn’t been fixed yet.

It’s not the type of news that a hard-nosed journalist like Gerry would realistically bother going to Banfield for, but it’s just a movie contrivance to put Gerry in the same outdoor field where he’ll see the mysterious tree that plays a big role in the story. Of course, viewers who’ve seen enough horror movies can automatically figure out that it’s the same tree where the “witch” was burned in 1845. The tree is later revealed to have a magical aura. But is it good or evil?

Gerry goes over to the tree and notices that there’s a doll inside a hollow part of the tree trunk. He takes out the doll, which is wrapped in deteriorated fabric, and sees that the doll has a label with the date February 31, 1845. February 31 doesn’t exist as a calendar date, but it’s later revealed why that incorrect date was placed on the doll’s label. Gerry just assumes that it was just a label error.

When the farmer sees the doll, he mentions to Gerry that it’s part of local legend that if someone breaks a talisman, it will unleash evil, and mutilations will begin. A skeptical Gerry is amused by this story and doesn’t believe a word of it. So what does he do? He smashes the doll. Of course he does, because how else would that explain what comes later in the movie?

Gerry doesn’t think there’s anything newsworthy to report in Banfield. And so, he starts to drive out of town through the deserted woods at night, as you do in a horror movie where something bad is supposed to happen when you’re alone in a dark, wooded area. As he’s driving, he sees a ghostly figure of a young woman, who’s barefoot and wearing a white flowing nightgown.

You know what happens next: He crashes his car when he swerves to avoid hitting this mysterious person. But when he gets out of the car, Gerry sees she isn’t in the street, so he starts looking for her in the woods. It turns out that she’s not a ghost, but a teenage girl who hasn’t been hit by the car but seems to be unconscious or in a trance. At this point, viewers know that Gerry is going to be in Banfield for a while.

Gerry carries the girl back to the church, which is the closest shelter he knows of in Banfield. The movie doesn’t show Gerry using his phone to call for help so she could go to a hospital first. No, that would be too logical for a silly movie like “The Unholy.” Conveniently, his car accident isn’t serious enough to cause significant damage to his car.

At the church, the girl regains consciousness. Gerry finds out that her name is Alice Padgett (played by Crickett Brown) and she’s the orphaned 15-year-old niece of Father Hagan. Alice lives with Father Hagan. And she’s also deaf and mute.

Shortly after she was found wandering in the woods, Alice begins to speak and hear. One of the first things that she says is: “The lady has an amazing message for all of us. She wants all of us to come tomorrow. She says her name is Mary.”

Gerry is excited about seeming to witness a “miracle,” so he takes photos and makes videos of Alice speaking and hearing, with the amazed reactions of Father Hagan and other people in the community. Whether or not Gerry thinks the miracle is real isn’t as important to him as the idea that this story could be his big comeback. He calls Monica Slade (played by Christine Adams), his former editor at The Examiner, to pitch her on this story about a deaf and mute girl who can now hear and speak.

Monica turns down the pitch because Gerry has damaged his reputation for fabricating stories and she’s skeptical that he’s telling her the truth. She also mentions that she still thinks that Gerry is as fame-hungry as he was when they worked together. Gerry is undeterred and decides to pursue the story on his own.

The next day, several people in the town, including Gerry and Father Hagan, have gathered to where Alice has led them: that big tree in the field owned by the church. Two parents named Dan Walsh (played by Dustin Tucker) and Sophia Walsh (played by Gisela Chipe) have brought their wheelchair-bound son Toby Walsh (played by twins Danny Corbo and Sonny Corbo) to this gathering.

Alice immediately zeroes in on Toby and says to him, “Mary commands you to walk.” Toby replies, “I can’t.” Alice says, “Believe.” And sure enough, Toby gets up (hesitantly at first) and starts to walk. The crowd reacts exactly like how a crowd would react to witnessing a miracle. Meanwhile, Gerry is video recording and taking photos of what happened to Toby for Gerry’s news story, which has just now gotten much bigger.

The word quickly spreads about Toby gaining his ability to walk. And soon, it makes international news, and numerous people flock to Banfield to see Alice and maybe get some of the miracles that she now seems capable of making happen. The tree becomes a popular gathering place, as does the local Catholic church where Alice also makes appearances. Alice tells anyone who asks that she is only a vessel for Mary, which people assume is the Virgin Mary.

It’s mentioned in “The Unholy” that in order for something to be considered a true miracle, it must meet three criteria: (1) It has to cure what was medically diagnosed as incurable; (2) The cure must be instantaneous; and (3) The cure must be complete and permanent. It’s too bad that the elements of a good horror movie weren’t applied to “The Unholy,” such as (1) an interesting screenplay; (2) belivable scares/visual effects; and (3) actors who look fully enagaged, not like they’re just going through the motions.

It doesn’t help that the dialogue in the movie is so simplistic and boring. In one scene, a supporting character named Dr. Natalie Gates (played by Katie Aselton), who is Alice’s medical doctor, asks Alice what Mary really wants. Alice replies, “She wants faith.” This is basically the movie’s way of saying that Mary wants her own cult of believers, starting with anyone she can get in Banfield. Anyone who expresses doubt in Mary is punished.

The character of Dr. Natalie Gates is a stereotype of a potential love interest for the main protagonist in a formulaic movie like this one: At first, she acts like she’s not impressed by Gerry and she’s somewhat antagonistic toward him. But then, as they start to get closer, she warms up to him. It’s just all so predictable.

Gerry gets a lot of attention for being the first journalist to get this “miracle” story, which is compared in the news media to other famous Virgin Mary miracle stories, such as those in Fátima, Portugal or Lourdes, France. Gerry’s former boss Monica changes her mind about hiring him to do a news story for The Examiner. She calls Gerry to give the assignment, but she calls at the worst possible time, in an awkwardly written scene that happens later in the movie.

With all the media attention come moneygrubbers looking to cash in on the story. And soon, Banfield has all the characteristics of a tourist attraction, with people selling Virgin Mary merchandise and other memorabilia. Gerry is soaking up all the notoriety that he’s getting, but he notices that Alice has become increasingly obsessed with having a big ceremony where everyone will proclaim their allegiance to Mary.

Here’s where the movie falters when it comes to how it tries to incorporate the Catholic religion into the story. Although there are plenty of real-life examples of movements aimed at getting people to believe in or convert to Christianity, the Catholic religion would not have an entire ceremony dedicated to worshipping the Virgin Mary, because Jesus Christ or God is considered the supreme being.

Even if Gerry knew nothing about the Catholic religion (and he does because he’s supposed to be a lapsed Catholic), as a journalist covering this story, he’s supposed to do his research. And if he did, he would’ve found out that what Alice is doing looks suspiciously like what cult leaders do. It would be enough to set off warning signs to a good investigative journalist, but Gerry is too caught up in the praise and glory for getting exclusive news scoops for this story.

“The Unholy” also unrealistically ignores the vast number of people from a massive institution like the Catholic Church who would be involved in this story. Instead, the Vatican sends only two Catholic clergymen who come to Banfield to investigate. Each man has his own agenda on how they can be part of the growing spectacle.

Bishop Gyles (played by Cary Elwes) is a smirking clergy leader who dismisses and thwarts anyone who expresses doubts that what Alice is doing isn’t a true Christian miracle. Father Delgarde (played by Diogo Morgado) is a devout priest who’s more open-minded to hearing various opinions because he has debunked false miracle claims before. But because Father Deglarde is an underling of Bishop Gyles, Father Delgarde has to go along with whatever the bishop orders.

It’s easy to see that Bishop Gyles is invested in keeping the miracle stories going because he wants to use these stories as a way to boost his own career in the Catholic Church. Father Delgarde is mainly concerned with doing God’s work and is more diplomatic and open-minded than Bishop Gyles is, in looking at various possibilities. Gerry and Bishop Gyles both have big egos about this “miracle” story, so the two men have inevitable clashes, especially when things happen and Gerry starts to have doubts that Alice is acting on behalf of the Virgin Mary.

Because “The Unholy” is a horror movie, there are gruesome deaths that happen. And what is causing these miracles is eventually revealed. The answers won’t surprise anyone who’s seen enough of these type of religion-based supernatural horror movies. It all leads up to a very fire-and-brimstone climax that isn’t scary as much as it’s ridiculous, tacky and filled with bad dialogue.

As the characters of Gerry and Alice, “The Unholy” co-stars Morgan and Brown have the most screen time in the movie. Morgan is doing yet another version of the roguish characters that he tends to play. Brown fulfills her role of Alice morphing from a shy, innocent teenager into someone who is very aware of the power of persuasion. There isn’t much depth to any of the personalities in this movie. Bishop Gyles is nothing but a caricature.

“The Unholy” isn’t even a “guilty pleasure” bad movie that’s enjoyable. Very little effort was made in creating a good mystery that’s a challenge to figure out, and there are no mind-blowing plot twists. The visual effects look very cheap (especially the scenes involving fire) and none of the movie’s significant characters is particularly likable, except for Father Delgarde. If horror movies are considered the junk food of cinema, then “The Unholy” is the equivalent of something that’s more like the disposable wrapping rather than the food itself.

Screen Gems released “The Unholy” in U.S. cinemas on April 2, 2021, and on digital and VOD on May 25, 2021. The movie’s release date on Blu-ray and DVD is June 22, 2021.