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-using 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.

Review: ‘Profile’ (2021), starring Valene Kane and Shazad Latif

May 14, 2021

by Carla Hay

Valene Kane in “Profile” (Photo courtesy of Bazelevs and Focus Features)

“Profile” (2021)

Directed by Timur Bekmambetov

Some language in Arabic with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place primarily in London and in Syria, in 2014, the dramatic film “Profile” features a cast of white and Middle Eastern characters (with one black person) representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: A British journalist creates an online persona for a news exposé on how jihadist terrorists in Syria recruit young Western women to become members of their ISIS militant groups, and the journalist gets emotionally involved with the man who is the focus of her investigation. 

Culture Audience: “Profile” will appeal primarily to people interested in a story that intersects between investigative journalism and online seduction.

Valene Kane and Shazad Latif in “Profile” (Photo courtesy of Bazelevs and Focus Features)

Years ago, NBC’s news investigation series “Dateline” had a segment called “To Catch a Predator,” which was about arresting sexual predators who use the Internet to target children. The suspenseful dramatic film “Profile” could have been subtitled “To Catch a Terrorist Predator,” since the movie depicts an investigation into how male ISIS terrorists in Syria lure Western teenage girls and young women into doing their bidding. The story in “Profile,” directed by Timur Bekmambetov, takes place over several weeks in 2014. And it’s a mostly well-paced thriller that’s not just about the investigation but it’s also about the dangers of creating a fake online persona and letting it take over your real life.

The “Profile” screenplay was written by Timur Bekmambetov, Britt Poulton and Olga Kharina. It probably helped to have women as two-thirds of this movie’s screenwriting team, since the protagonist in “Profile” is a female journalist who has to be written and portrayed as believable, in order for viewers to understand some of the decisions that she makes. “Profile” is based on the non-fiction book “In the Skin of a Jihadist” by a French journalist with the alias Anna Erelle, who has 24-hour security protection because of what she uncovered during her investigation.

In “Profile,” London-based freelance journalist Amy Whittaker (played by Valene Kane) has gotten an investigative assignment that she’s pitched to an unnamed TV network. Amy wants to find out how hundreds of young Western women and girls (some as young as 12 to 14 years old), who were usually raised as Christians, have radically changed their lives to convert to Islam, move to Syria, and live as extreme jihadists for ISIS. In order to expose the grooming process, Amy has decided that she will create a fake online profile and pretend to be a young woman who will be “bait” for one of the male jihadists.

At the beginning of the story, Amy is under a lot of stress because she’s overdue on her rent, and her assignment editor Vick (played by Christine Adams) is pressuring Amy to wrap up the investigation so that the TV network can have the story by the expected deadline. Amy creates a fake online persona named Melody Nelson, with her profile avatar as Snow White wearing a hijab and holding a lollipop. In real life, Amy is in her 30s, but she decides that her alter ego Melody will be 19 years old. Amy was originally going to make Melody 25 years old, but her research found that the terrorists prefer to lure teenage girls into their jihadist lifestyles.

Soon after Amy “likes” a jihadist ideology video that’s posted on social media, she is contacted by a terrorist in Syria named Abu Bilel Al-Britani (played by Shazad Latif), who likes to be called Bilel. And their “courtship” begins. Bilel, who is in his late 20s or early 30s, was born and raised in London, but he grew to hate the United Kingdom and other Western countries. As an adult, he moved to Syria, where he has become a middle-ranking leader of a group of terrorists.

Bilel (whose online avatar is a snarling lion) is charming and overly flattering with Melody. Amy portrays Melody as a vulnerable and lonely orphaned teenager in East London who has converted to Islam because she became disillusioned with Christian beliefs. As Melody, Amy pretends to be in awe of Bilel and comes across as someone who enthusiastically shares his beliefs that his ISIS activities are for a good cause. When she asks Bilel what his job is, he doesn’t hesitate to proudly tell her: “Killing people.”

Amy is somewhat caught off-guard when Bilel immediately begins trying to sell Melody on the idea that her life is an overpriced rut in England and that she’s better off being in Syria, where he says that she will be treated like a queen. Soon after they start messaging each other online, Bilel tells Melody that Syria is a great place to live. And he doesn’t waste time in insisting that they take their conversations to video chats on Skype.

And so, there’s an extended sequence of Amy quickly getting a crash course on how to give the appearance of being the perfect naïve target for an ISIS predator. Amy uses YouTube for makeup tutorials to apply makeup that will make her look younger and for instructions on strict Muslim traditions, such as wearing a jihab and gender rules. She also goes on YouTube and other social media to see first-hand accounts of teenage girls in the United States and Europe who were seduced into moving to the Middle East to become wives and concubines of jihadist terrorists and ended up becoming sex slaves.

One teenager’s story particularly touches Amy: Taylor Conger (played by Eloise Thomas) was a 14-year-old British loner who chronicled her life on YouTube. At some point, Taylor decided to upend her life, moved to Syria, and became an ISIS militant and the wife of a jihadist. What happens to Taylor is detailed later in the movie. As part of Amy’s research from social media videos that were made by radicalized Western teens, Melody uses some of the same words in her conversations with Bilel to explain why she’s seeking a big change in her isolated and depressing life.

During this investigation, Amy has been making plans to move in with her boyfriend Matt (played by Morgan Watkins), who’s aware that Amy is investigating an ISIS terrorist by creating a fake online persona. Matt finds a place that he likes and shows it to Amy during a video chat, but Amy prefers another home that they found because it has a garden for her dog Sparky. They eventually settle on the place that’s Amy’s first choice.

Amy also has an energetic and somewhat nosy friend named Kathy Pallary (played by Emma Cater), who is always trying to get homebody Amy to do things like go shopping with her or have dinner with her. Amy has confided in Kathy about her investigation. And you know that that means: Kathy wants to eventually see what Amy has uncovered.

The TV network has offered information technology (IT) assistance to Amy in her investigation. And so, an IT employee named Lou Kabir (played by Amir Rahimzadeh), who works for the TV network, is introduced to Amy through Skype. He coaches her on how to navigate the fake online accounts she’s created so that she can simultaneously use her real online accounts, in case she needs to switch back and forth with ease.

During Lou’s first online meeting with Amy, he mentions offhand that his mother is from Syria. After their conversation, Amy expresses concerns to Vick about Lou’s ethnicity and wonders out loud if Lou might tell his mother about the investigation and what might happen if Lou’s mother knows a terrorist. Vick, who says that Lou’s mother has lived in England for decades, admonishes Amy for being paranoid and racist. And it actually is very hypocritical for Amy to think this way, because she’s the one who’s been indiscreet about the investigation, having already told Matt and Kathy about it.

When Melody and Bilel meet each other for the first time, Amy has to pretend to be someone who’s attracted enough to Bilel to easily fall in love with him. She acts shy, deferential and coquettish. She tells Bilel that she’s 19. And when he asks her if she’s a virgin, she says yes. Amy secretly video records the Skype conversations that she has with Bilel.

The rest of the movie is a psychological back-and-forth over who’s really doing the more successful con game: the terrorist or the journalist? Because most of the movie consists of Skype conversations and messaging on social media, “Profile” keeps a lot of the suspense going with plot contrivances, such as Matt and Kathy unknowingly interrupting Amy when she’s on Skype chats with Bilel. Amy usually has to ignore their messages when she’s with Bilel. And eventually, Amy gets so caught up in the investigation that it starts to take a toll on her relationship with Matt.

Meanwhile, Vick’s patience starts to wear thin, as Amy keeps delaying the end of the investigation because Amy thinks she can find information that can not only expose the Bilel’s recruitment tactics but also find a way that he can be captured. Yes, it’s a bit of a stretch for Amy to suddenly start thinking that she can be like an MI6 operative, but a lot of investigative journalists can develop grandiose and ambitious goals when they get very caught up in their investigations.

Bilel initially comes across as very confident and assertive, but he eventually shows a vulnerable side to Melody when he opens up to her about his troubled family history. It’s a turning point in their relationship, because it triggers Amy to reveal to Bilel that she has her own struggles with a family tragedy that still haunts her. Telling Bilel her big family secret is a crack in her façade, because viewers will get the impression that although Amy told this story as Melody, the story is really what happened to Amy.

Viewers will have to suspend some disbelief in a few areas of the movie. For example, Bilel is paranoid about being exposed by journalists and government spies. And yet, he’s all over social media bragging about his misdeeds, without any attempts to hide his face and disguise his voice. Bilel also never does a Google search on any photos of Melody. Because if he did, he would find out that she looks exactly like a London journalist named Amy Whittaker who’s on social media.

However, Bilel isn’t a complete fool. Amy never really looks as young as 19, and Bilel is suspicious of how old Melody really is. Eventually, he confronts Melody and demands that she tell him what her real age is. Amy has to decide if she’s going to stick with the lie or confess something that’s more believable.

Amy’s undercover work starts to spill over into her real life. When she sees a report that ISIS terrorists have co-opted the hand gesture of pointing an index finger upright (the way some people indicate the number one), Amy gets paranoid when she sees a social media photo of Kathy making the same gesture. For a brief moment, Amy wonders if Kathy is a secret terrorist until Kathy explains that she made the gesture as that it was one more day until her celebration of the upcoming holiday season.

Amy also starts to blur the lines between her professional and personal lives when she takes her investigation beyond what she’s supposed to do. During a video chat, Bilel confided in Melody about how one of his favorite childhood memories was going to a London sweetshop owned by a fellow Syrian. Bilel tells her that it’s one of his few happy memories of London.

One day, Amy (disguised as Melody) surprises Bilel by doing their next Skype chat from that same London sweetshop. She gives a video tour of the shop so that it can bring back some happy memories for him. Although this might seem like a shrewd gesture to further endear herself to Bilel, it’s actually a very risky thing to do because no one should be seeing Amy out in public in her undercover disguise. What if someone who knew Amy walked into that shop and recognized her? (Stranger things have happened.) Her cover would be blown.

It’s during this video chat that something major happens in the story that reveals that Amy hasn’t been able to keep an emotional distance from Bilel during this investigation. The result of this video chat also brings up journalistic ethical dilemmas that can happen when journalists work undercover and encounter things that they did not expect. Amy does indeed go down a proverbial “rabbit hole” in her obsession to get a bigger story, but what will it cost her?

The believable performances of Kane and Latif make “Profile” a watchable film overall. Where the movie falters a bit is during the middle part of the story, which drags a little with some cutesy courtship footage, such as Bilel and Melody cooking curry during one of their Skype chats. And there are many instances during their Skype chats when someone in Amy’s real life interrupts and she has to abruptly disconnect from her call with Bilel. Bilel doesn’t get suspicious though (even though he should) because Amy (as Melody) always comes up with an excuse that he automatically believes.

In “Profile,” the terror of living in war-torn Syria is often a backdrop and not at the forefront—and deliberately so, because Bilel wants to paint a rosy picture of Syria, in order to lure Melody there. A bomb might go off while Bilel is outside, but if it does, he will quickly disconnect from the call. Likewise, he doesn’t show Melody any part of his murderous acts and other violence that he commits as a terrorist.

It’s an example of how people who create fake personas online only show what they want to show. If viewers are willing to tolerate seeing a movie about catching a terrorist that involves a lot of footage of computer screens, then “Profile” should hold people’s interest with this intriguing story. Beyond what’s on the computer screens, the movie skillfully offers a metaphorical blank canvas where viewers can project their opinions on how they feel about investigative journalism, online relationshps and tactics used to fight terrorism.

Focus Features released “Profile” in U.S. cinemas on May 14, 2021.

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