As with all review-caps, MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD for The Unholy. You’ve been warned.
As a horror super-fan, I will totally admit that I’m especially drawn to religious horror stories. There’s no big mystery as to why. I grew up Catholic as all get-out. Decades after letting my membership in that particular club lapse, the mythology of Catholicism, those grand ideas one learns about in Catechism class and the amazing stories in the Bible continue to fascinate me. Clearly, the same can be said for a lot of folks, given the popularity of religious horror. But within this well-tread territory is one aspect that hasn’t been explored much at all: Mary, the mother of Jesus.
Depending on which variation of Christianity you’re talking about, Mary is anywhere from a mere historical figure to outright worshipped. In Catholicism, Mary is a major force, the “Queen of Heaven,” who has supposedly appeared to the faithful and pure of heart while performing miracles.
Even today, the towns of Lourdes in France and Fatima in Portugal, where Mary has supposedly appeared, continue to draw thousands of people every year, and miracles continue to be attributed to her. But as much as Mary has been included in movies about Jesus’ life or the apparitions at Lourdes and Fatima, very few have focused specifically on her. So that’s what intrigued me when I saw the trailer for The Unholy. That and the fact that it’s produced by Sam Raimi.
So, the story begins with a prologue set in 1845 in Banfield, Massachusetts. We see through a woman’s eyes as she’s tortured and put to death – we assume for witchcraft. We see one of the executioners performing a spell, binding the woman’s spirit to a doll before she’s hung and set on fire.
Cut to the present day. A disgraced, out-of-work journalist named Gerry Fenn (Walking Dead’s Jeffrey Dean Morgan) begrudgingly takes an pathetically low-paying assignment from a website that reports on weird phenomena in and around Boston. A farmer in Banfield has reported cattle mutilation and the site owner wants Gerry to check it out. When he gets there, Fenn finds that it’s nothing more than some kid playing a joke by painting a Metallica “M” on a cow’s butt. Then the local priest, Father Hagan (William Sadler), comes out to tell the farmer for the umpteenth time to get his cows off the church’s property.
Fenn’s about ready to pack it up and go home when hears something. A whispery voice calls his attention to a creepy-looking dead tree in the middle of the field. He sees something inside the base of the tree and takes it out – the same doll we saw earlier. The farmer tells him it’s probably what’s known as a “kern baby,” a traditional totem that farmers used to bring good luck.
But since this doll’s been bound by a chain, the farmer says he’s not sure what it was used for. Realizing that this could turn the cattle-mutilation-that-wasn’t into an actual thing, Fenn decides to stomp on the doll’s ceramic head and break it, showing us the kind of unscrupulous behavior that undoubtedly got him into trouble before. Of course, what Fenn doesn’t realize is that he just released the ashes of the tortured woman and broke the binding spell.
That night, as Fenn’s driving down a dark, wooded road, a girl in white suddenly appears in his way. Fenn runs his car off the road and into a tree. Then, he follows the girl through the woods and into the field. The girl kneels before the creepy-looking tree and talks to it before fainting. Fenn takes her to the hospital and meets the local doctor, Natalie (Katie Aselton). He tells her what happened, but Natalie assures Fenn that he couldn’t possibly have heard the girl, named Alice (Cricket Brown), talking because she’s deaf and mute.
Partly due to the real mystery developing and partly due to his own selfish desire to find a story he can sell, Fenn decides to stick around and record the goings-on. His hunch pays off when the next day Alice leaves church in the middle of mass to walk out to the field and up to the tree. Fenn and everyone else follow her out of curiosity. They’re stunned when Alice suddenly speaks. She says that “The Lady” appeared to her and gave her back her voice so that she could spread her message.
She says that The Lady wants her to return to the tree the next day. When she does, of course, it draws a crowd. This time there’s a family who’s brought their son, suffering from muscular dystrophy, to see if The Lady might heal him. Alice asks them if they believe in The Lady and they desperately pledge their faith. Alice tells the boy to stand and walk. After initially saying that he can’t, he does just that. Everyone’s in shock – and Fenn’s giddy with excitement, thinking he’s onto a story that will get his career back on track.
As word of the “miracles” starts going viral, the press and representatives from the church descend on the town. The local bishop (Cary Elwes) and a monsignor (Diogo Morgado) from the Vatican arrive to investigate the veracity of the miracles. Fenn manages to finagle his way into the investigation by offering his services as an objective party, being a cynic and all.
And as the press descends on Alice, Fenn’s way of questioning her is gentle and much less rude. She only responds to him, basically turning him into her publicist. Then Alice “heals” Father Hagan’s emphysema. After the doc takes X-rays that show his damaged lungs are suddenly clear, it only serves to fuel the story’s viral spread and the hashtag #AliceSaves starts trending like crazy.
Fenn and Alice develop a friendship as he continues to interview her and ask her about The Lady. Alice says she appears to her clothed in robes, that she glows – and that her name is Mary. So it’s gotta be the Mary, right? Of course, who else could it be? But as the religious and press fervor grow, both Fenn and Father Hagan sense that something’s not right about the whole thing. Hagan ironically quotes Martin Luther: “Where God builds a church, the Devil builds a chapel next door.”
Father Hagan is the first to discover the necessary documentation in the church basement, a journal detailing the story of Mary Elnor – the woman from the prologue. She made a deal with Satan to avenge herself and trick as many people as she can into pledging themselves to her. In return, Satan would provide her with the power to do dark magic that would look like miracles. Fenn finds out more about the curse, learning that Mary Elnor’s descendants would be the ones who pass it on. And who just happens to be the last in the family line? If you said Alice, you win the “gee-I-never-woulda-guessed-that” award.
So, Alice announces that Mary wants a service to be held by the tree. She wants as many people as possible to be there and to broadcast it, which the bishop is only too happy to arrange. But Fenn relays what he’s learned to the monsignor, who tries to stop Alice by performing some kind of ritual on his own. Of course, this only leads to him getting killed.
And all through the story, Fenn is disturbed by visions of his own, visions of the true “Lady,” who looks more like a grim reaper than a glowing lady. He realizes that Alice is in danger from this spirit, and the only way to protect her is to put her safety above his own selfish interests and profess the truth.
Next, the service gets underway and Alice hears Mary’s voice again. Alice tells everyone to pledge themselves to Mary. In order for the spell to take hold, the faithful have to pledge their devotion three times. But Fenn and the doctor manage to burst in just in time, announcing loud and clear that the “miracles” are false. Even Alice’s miracle and the boy with MD, chalking them up to the “placebo effect.”
Mary (Marina Mazepa) makes her grand appearance then. She’s a hybrid of the grim reaper, Samara from The Ring and the chick from The Grudge. Mary sets the place on fire and makes quick work of the dastardly bishop. Then she turns her fury on Fenn. But Alice steps in with a really goofy sounding “Nooooo!” and takes the hit for him. She dies and Mary dies with her, disintegrating into a pile of dust.
That should have been the end of it, but then Fenn decides to do the cheeseball praying-to-God-out-loud thing and begs God to save her. A few seconds later, Alice comes back to life – but her ability to hear and speak is gone. A final scene of visiting Father Hagan’s grave shows that Alice is okay with it.
The Unholy 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 movie isn’t up to the challenge of really exploring these ideas. The whole thing feels more like a sketch of a larger, more epic film.
Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Cricket Brown both deliver solid performances, but we’re never given the chance to get to know their characters beyond what’s on the surface. And The Unholy commits the worst possible offense a horror flick can commit – it just isn’t that scary. At every turn where the creatives behind the film could have gone deeper, scarier and more epic, they instead chose to keep things shallow, formulaic and small. That’s a shame.
Directed by: Evan Spiliotopoulos
Written by: James Herbert (novel), Evan Spiliotopoulos
Release Date: Apr. 2, 2021
Run Time: 99 min
Distributors: Sony Pictures / Screen Gems
Currently in theaters