As a child in the pews of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary Church, I always wondered, if the First Commandment is “I am the Lord thy God, thou shalt not have any strange gods before Me,” why are we spending so much time and energy praying to the Virgin Mary instead of God?
James Herbert, in between thinking about hyper intelligent rats destroying humanity, must have had similar thoughts when he wrote the book Shrine in 1983. The book combines so many of my favorite subjects — religious ecstasy, demonic possession, faith healing, fanatical Catholicism and hysteria — and seems like the perfect tale to make into a movie.
So imagine my delight when it really did become a movie and Sam Raimi and Robert Tapert were the producers. My mania got even more intense when they picked the very William Castle release date of Good Friday to open the movie, which pretty much disappeared so quickly that I had to pray to St. Anthony to try and find it. At the time, I blamed the pandemic and the fact that there really aren’t enough theaters yet to support a movie’s release.
Then I finally watched The Unholy at home and, well…
This is legitimately the worst movie I’ve seen in some time, which is a miracle in and out of itself seeing as how many Bruno Mattei and Jess Franco movies I watch. Director Evan Spiliotopoulos has a career mainly in writing and most of those films are animated sequels, such as The Lion King 1 1/2, Tarzan II and The Little Mermaid: Ariel’s Beginning. I have no real idea how he made the move from screenwriting to directing a film that came out from a major company like Sony, because this is a movie rife with issues.
I don’t expect everyone to be Mario Bava and obsessed over color palette, but the tones of this movie shift to the point that it becomes hyper-distracting. I don’t just mean that each location has its own color choice. I mean that there are times that the film looks like its from the late 90s/00s world of crushed black and that silver and blue colortone over everything. At other times, such as inside the church or the tent service that closes the films, the black tones are so clumped up that you start to lose parts of the pictoral integrity. This also makes the movie look like its shot on multiple stocks of film, like Natural Born Killers without a plan. So there are moments when The Unholy has the look of an artier horror movie and others where it looks like it was made for Lifetime. I mean, this had a $10 million dollar budget, so you think that’d be something people would look into.
There’s even an opening of a woman’s spirit being placed inside a doll when she dies so that the reveal of what happens in the movie is completely spoiled, like I am doing now. My reasons are to keep anyone from enduring such a pointless film, while the filmmakers should have been to surprise you later in the movie, seeing as how the central conceit is whether or not Alice Pagett (Cricket Brown) is on the side of the angels, fallen or unfallen.
Disgraced journalist Gerry Fenn (Jeffrey Dean Morgan, who deserves better) is in town to get a web story about a possessed cow. He’s only getting paid $150 for driving across the country, which makes me wonder if he’s ever heard of Upwork, which he could use to to find way better work, or even retail, which would pay better. Instead, while in this town, he breaks open the evil doll to create a fake story, the doll’s spirit goes into the deaf mute Alice, who suddenly starts speaking, hearing and healing everyone in town.
Much like the Amazing Randi vs. faithhealers debate, Gerry wonders if this is all a placebo effect. The Catholic Church seems more than willing to instantly make this a miracle. For all the scorn you can toss the church’s way, they’re bigger skeptics than nearly anyone. Maybe it’s all Bishop Gyles (Cary Elwes, who also deserves better) wanting to erase the sins of the past few decades.
Meanwhile, Alice’s uncle Father William Hagan (William Sadler, who…yeah, but way more than everyone else) starts to not believe that this is all divine, even after his emphysema is healed. Also, Katie Aselton from The League is in this and, yes, she really should have followed the lead of Jordana Brewster and escaped.
The Unholy has some of the worst effects I’ve seen since the early days of CGI, moments of demonic shadows and static that look unfinished at best and hilariously inept at worst. It’s hard to get into a film when you’re nearly seeing the effects fall apart. They looked great in the trailer, but that’s because, you know, you can cut the trailer to take off the bad edges. When they’re up there on screen for an extended period, they’re just plain horrendous.
The movie ends with the most ridiculous montage of religious imagery, stuff that looks like a slideshow someone made in iMovie. We also get St. Matthew 7:15 up there, telling us “Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s. clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves.”
I’ll answer this movie with my own quote from the Bible. Let’s use Pslam 101:3. “I will not set before my eyes anything that is worthless. I hate the work of those who fall away; it shall not cling to me.”