Synopsis – A hearing-impaired girl is visited by the Virgin Mary and can suddenly hear, speak, and heal the sick. As people flock to witness her miracles, terrifying events unfold. Are they the work of the Virgin Mary or something much more sinister?
My Take – History is its witness, horror films with religion at its center are downright terrifying!
With most questioning about one’s faith and their relationship to God. However, what made this latest Sam Raimi produced horror look immediately intriguing was that it factored in Mary or Maryam, the mother of Jesus (Isa), specifically connecting her to the apparitions at the towns of Lourdes in France and Fatima in Portugal. It sure is surprising that despite being literally worshiped by thousands, with miracles continued to be attributed to her, in the cinematic world, very few films have focused specifically on her.
Adapted from author James Herbert’s 1983 novel, Shrine, here, screenwriter-turned-first-time-director Evan Spiliotopoulos (Beauty and the Beast, Hercules, Charlie’s Angels), has an intriguing idea in hand, something on the lines of The Exorcist (1973), sadly, other than that almost everything is lacking.
The film poses a lot of big ideas. The biggest being the blurry area between superstition and faith. And questions like, when we pray, how do we know who we’re really praying to? And if we get an answer, how do we know where that answer is coming from?
Unfortunately, the director Spiliotopoulos isn’t up to the challenge of really exploring these ideas despite opening promisingly by linking the religious practices of Catholicism and witchcraft. Instead preferring to use its story-line to dish out the usual fair of predictable jump scares and subpar ghostly effects, also while ineffectively smearing in the effects of the fake news mass hysteria and faith healing with a help of a muddled narrative.
The story follows Gerry Fenn (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), a once promising reporter, who lost his career upon being discovered for fabricating some of his bigger stories. Now he spends most of his time picking up low-paying assignments from a website that reports on weird phenomena, hoping that one of them would eventually turn into his big comeback. When one of his potential comeback tale in a rural town to be fruitless, he decides to stay long enough to create a bogus miracle story about a creepy tree and a creepier doll, and get into a car accident which introduces him to an actual miracle in the form of Alice (Cricket Brown), a deaf-mute teenager who suddenly gains the ability to hear, speak and even sing.
Proclaiming that she has been cured by the Virgin Mary, people begin to flock to Alice, especially when she becomes a faith healer by helping a deaf child walk for the first time and curing Father Hagan (William Sadler), her priest uncle of his emphysema. And because Gerry was there at the beginning of her interactions, Alice grants him exclusive interview privileges. However, deep down he knows though this is a big opportunity, the circumstances this time around may not be as pure as the Virgin Mary suddenly bestowing blessings on this small town.
Like I mentioned above, the film’s premise ripe with potential, and it could have gotten a lot of mileage out of placing miracles within an intriguingly modern context. Here, director Spiliotopoulos flirts with some genuinely provocative directions, and surprisingly works best when it explores the institutions that have a vested interest in proving the veracity of Alice’s miracles.
Early into the film, the Vatican sends an investigator known as Monsignor Delgarde (Diogo Morgado) to verify that the miracles are legit; that the holiest of institutions would deploy an official skeptic is intriguing and apparently true to life, but the film does so little with this agent of the church that his scenes could easily be cut out.
Sure, it prepares us for the inevitable by Father Hagan reminding off the risk the miracles pose to Alice from a spiritual and historical standpoint, as things did not exactly end well for the children of Fatima, but director Spiliotopoulos fails to deliver on promises as he succumbs the film to his worst instincts. Even the human element of this story is drowned in the spectacle, as all characters are reduced to mouthpieces, trading portentous talking points about the power and danger of faith.
But the biggest crime the film commits as a horror is that it is never scary enough. The main antagonist brought to life via a combination of digital and practical effects and a stunt performer is never quite compelling, and the rules surrounding her powers are never established, which meaning she spends most of the film jumping out at the camera from various surfaces. Even the script can never quite marry the compelling pieces of her character design and backstory into a coherent whole. At every turn where the film could gone deeper, scarier and more epic, it just doesn’t, instead choosing to keep things shallow, formulaic and small.
Performance wise, both Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Cricket Brown are quite solid. While Brown portrays the pure, pristine, wide-eyed innocence of Alice really well, Morgan manages to capture his character’s desperation well, making sure we understand that his road to the bottom of the news food-chain has been a hard one. In supporting roles, William Sadler and Katie Aselton are good, while Diogo Morgado and Cary Elwes are wasted. On the whole, ‘The Unholy’ is a dramatically muddled horror film which fails its potentially excellent concept.
Directed – Evan Spiliotopoulos
Rated – PG13
Run Time – 99 minutes