Since The Exorcist’s release and subsequent success nearly fifty years ago, religious-based horror hasn’t deviated very often from the formula. Mostly, these films tend to feature a lead character reclaiming their faith through a frightening confrontation with evil of the demonic or biblical variety. At first glance, The Unholy, an adaptation of James Herbert’s 1983 novel Shrine, teases a new direction thanks to a town inundated by miracles attributed to a malevolent Virgin Mary. From the opening moments, though, it becomes evident that this latest entry in religious horror commits the cardinal sin of inducing boredom by way of tired tropes.
The Unholy removes all mystery behind its Virgin Mary-like entity from the opening scene set in 1845 New England. From the POV of an unseen yet terrified woman, the viewer looks through an iron mask as men surround her, hammer the mask into her flesh, then set her ablaze. Cut to the present, where disgraced journalist Gerry Fenn (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) ventures into the small town of Banfield, Massachusetts, to investigate a strange case. Fenn realizes it’s a hoax but winds up stumbling upon an even bigger case through a series of events that lead him to deaf, mute teen Alice (Cricket Brown). Alice regains hearing and a voice she never had and performs miracles through a power granted by the Virgin Mary. Her heavenly powers attract widespread attention, but Fenn suspects there’s something sinister afoot.
Written and directed by Evan Spiliotopoulos, making his directorial debut, The Unholy attempts to connect a familiar narrative to the present with the overarching theme of blind faith. There’s no pretense that this entity isn’t the benevolent mother; she merely uses miracles as a means to an end. How quickly she begins to amass devout followers is meant to serve as a timely cautionary tale. Spiliotopoulos nestles this morality story within the wrappings of a standard demonic horror movie, one that’s overly reliant on cheap jump scares.
The cast is likable enough. Brown’s Alice’s emits naïve sweetness, and Morgan’s built a career on imbuing despicable characters with charm. William Sadler is also instantly winsome as Alice’s uncle, Father Hagan, and Carey Elwes exudes bravado as a Vatican representative. They’re your standard archetypical characters, though. Fenn offers the requisite skeptic turned reluctant hero, and Katie Aselton is relegated to the scientific leaning ally. With all of the central questions answered so quickly right upfront, there’s no driving force here; no rooting interest, suspense, or momentum. It’s just a tedious waiting game, watching Fenn go through the motions in finding a way to defeat the blasphemous pretender.
The entity’s design and much of the VFX look rough. The first time we get a full glimpse of the sinister Virgin Mary, it’s a CG-heavy nightmare sequence with crude movements that pull you out of the moment. The spirit doesn’t fare any better with subsequent appearances, primarily when it focuses on its eyes. There’s nothing scary about this ghost, not even when it resorts to loud shrieking jump scares- the only trick up its sleeve.
Despite Morgan and Sadler giving it their all and another fantastic score by Joseph Bishara, The Unholy fails to perform the miracle of injecting new life into religious horror. Its attempts at thematic depth end up far too shallow, and there’s no real grasp of scare crafting or mood-setting to compensate. It’s a bland egg you won’t want in your basket this Easter weekend.
The Unholy releases in theaters on April 2, 2021.