The horror genre has been surprisingly kind to Christians of late.
The hacky 2020 shocker “We Summon the Darkness” proved an exception, trotting out stale anti-Christian tropes amidst its cinematic wreckage. Still, the “Conjuring” franchise alone shows horror filmmaking that leverages evil without punishing people of faith.
“The Unholy” continues this tradition while embracing horror cliches from the modern age of studio storytelling.
- Lights flickering as a sign of evil’s approach
- CGI humanoids whose twitchy moves create a twig-snapping sound
- The “exposition” sequence which spells out every last element
Still, “The Unholy” features a strong lead performance, glossy production values and the good sense to move swiftly through its predictable paces.
Jeffrey Dean Morgan of “The Walking Dead” fame stars as Gerry Fenn, a lapsed journalist/Catholic. He stumbles upon a story that could resurrect his career, assuming anyone still trusts him to tell the truth. A young woman in central Massachusetts named Alice (Cricket Brown, excellent) suddenly regains her ability to speak after an encounter with an apparition of Mary.
What’s more, Alice suddenly has the ability to heal the sick, which draws the attention of the Catholic Church and the media. Does Alice truly have a miraculous touch, or are her powers the result of something … unholy?
Based on the book “Shrine” by James Herbert, “The Unholy” gives Morgan a chance to flex his scratchy screen presence. Gerry is the very worst kind of journalist, someone so desperate for fame he’s willing to invent a narrative to get people’s attention.
He’s got a bright future at CNN.
You can tell there’s something good buried deep within him, the film’s major selling point. Brown’s Alice is a close second, making her character’s transformation from confused teen to healer is both credible and, at times, tragic.
“The Unholy” pairs them with solid supporting actors, from Cary Elwes as a Bishop whose ambitions are far too obvious and William Sadler as Alice’s father figure.
Just beware the film’s scare quotient is as modest as its PG:13 rating. You won’t so much as eyeball the armrest of your chair during the first 50 minutes, let alone give it a squeeze. Things pick up from there, as we meet a CGI apparition with ties to the film’s all-important prologue.
Morgan’s character enjoys a connection with a local doctor (Katie Aselton of “The League” fame), and you wish the duo had more screen time together.
“The Unholy” spends time in Small Town USA without speaking down to it. In fact, the big city Gerry is the real target, a deeply flawed soul shredding corners for personal glory.
The film’s narrative relies heavily on Catholic faith, but the only thing resembling a cheap shot is a brief sequence noting the merchandising push behind Alice’s healing powers. It’s a cynical but appropriate touch.
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Writer/director Evan Spiliotopoulos, who wrote “The Huntsman: Winter’s War” and the live-action “Beauty and the Beast,” brings a high gloss to the film that makes every scene worth absorbing. You almost wish for some rough edges, though, the kind that gave even low-budget ’80s shlock its texture.
It helps that Morgan’s Gerry is a bit of a mess, from his perpetual stubble to his unkempt ‘do. Aselton is similarly unadorned, the movie playing down her natural beauty to let her character’s morality shine.
Still, we’re here for the scares, and while the blood and gore is kept to a minimal so is the sense of unease marking the best horror movies, faith-friendly or otherwise.
HiT or Miss: “The Unholy” is a respectable, if tame, shocker for those who dislike R-rated theatrics and films insulting their faith.
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