The Unholy

The Unholy is a throwback to horror movies from the Seventies, like The Exorcist and The Amityville Horror.  Its present day inspiration would be the Conjuring movies, with their focus on normal, everyday people confronting evil from a Christian perspective.  Unlike the Conjuring movies, The Unholy takes a more humanistic approach for most of its running time, focusing more on the characters trying to understand the mysterious events happening around them and less on evil beings and bombastic displays of satanic power. Its message of mistaking evil for the divine is a timely one. Recommended.

Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves.

Matthew 7:15

Since there has been a possession-themed horror movie released almost every year for the last ten years (see below), and based on its trailer (also below), I thought The Unholy was another horror movie where someone becomes possessed and Catholic priests are called in to perform an exorcism that is initially successful (but ultimately not).  While The Unholy does contain those elements, the movie fortunately has more on its mind than following the plays in the well-worn cinematic possession/exorcism playbook.

The Unholy plays things pretty much straight, with a level of restraint expected with a PG-13 rating.  People die, but the killings are bloodless, there is no sex or nudity, and I can’t remember any swear words being uttered.  This being a horror movie about witchcraft and satanic powers, it does contain a couple of jump scares and fiery confrontation between good and evil in the last act.  While that final confrontation is somewhat inevitable, the story leading up to that point is focused more on how evil can cloak its true designs in divinity. 

The movie begins with a scene set in Banfield, Massachusetts, circa 1845.  A witch is put to death by a religious congregation in an extremely violent manner.  A mask is nailed to her face, and then she’s set on fire.  Seeing these events from the witch’s viewpoint makes them disturbing, to say the least.  A priest holds a doll in front of her and speaks something in exorcism-speak.  The fire consumes the witch’s body and we cut to the present day.

Gerry Fenn (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) is a down-on-his-luck reporter.  We know this because he’s being given assignments from a much younger editor, and his assignment is to report on mysterious cow mutilations going on in Banfield.  The “mutilations” amount to local kids spray-painting a Metallica symbol on a cow’s backside.  When he’s about to leave, a sinister voice calls him to a dead tree nearby.  Inside it is a kern doll, and the local yocal says that they are typically placed in farmland as a way to bring good luck.  Since the doll is a bit on the creepy side, Gerry smashes it as a way to tie it to the (lame) cow mutilation story.

Later that evening, Gerry nearly hits a young girl walking in the middle of the road with his car.  After crashing in the woods, he follows the girl back to the same tree where he found the kern doll.  She says a few words and collapses.  The next day, Gerry learns from Dr. Natalie Gates (Katie Aselton), that the girl is named Alice and that she is deaf and a mute.  That diagnosis is put into question when Alice (Cricket Brown) begins to speak in church, saying that she has been cured by Mary.  This is a stroke of good luck for Gerry, who is the only reporter in town and can follow the story as it unfolds.

Alice has been cured from her life-long afflictions, something that Natalie cannot explain.  Father Hagen (William Sadler) is happy for Alice, but is noticeably uneasy by what most would assume to be a miracle.  Later, Alice heals a young boy suffering from MS, and cures Father Hagen’s lung cancer.  She claims to be channeling the power of Mary, and everyone assumes she’s talking about the Virgin Mary.  While the members of the congregation and the town are quick to take Alice at her word, Father Hagen is surprisingly dubious.  He quotes Martin Luther when he tells Gerry, “For where God built a church, there the Devil would also build a chapel.”

Having performed what appear to be two miracles, the Catholic Church sends Bishop Gyles (Cary Elwes) and Monsignor Delgarde (Diogo Morgado) to verify the miracles.  Gyles and Delgarde verify that Alice’s healings against the miracle checklist (check, check and check), and the Catholic Church declares the site of the tree to be a holy temple.  With nonstop reporting by Gerry, Alice becomes, to quote John Lennon, “bigger than Jesus”.  Father Hagen discovers that the Mary Alice speaks of is actually Mary Elnor, the witch put to death in the beginning of the movie.  Alice is Witch Mary’s descendant, and Mary has been channeling her power through Alice.  The more followers Alice gets, the stronger Mary becomes.  Mary kills Father Hagen, and later shows Delgarde what smoldering is all about.

In the final confrontation, Gerry must dissuade Alice’s followers from pledging their souls to Mary.  Fortunately for Gerry, his reputation as a disgraced journalist is well known.  His story that he and Alice made everything up sews enough doubt among the faithful, effectively preventing Mary from laying claim to their souls.  Unfortunately, this strategy also brings Mary to the fore, and Hell hath no fury like a demonic witch scorned.  I found it odd how Mary stands normally but creep-walks around like the girl from The Grudge.  Nothing signifies evil like a person walking on all fours, I guess.

Alice sacrifices herself to save Gerry and defeat Mary, but somehow is brought back to life after Mary vanishes.  Was her resurrection divine intervention?  The movie ends on a happy note, with Alice alive but no longer able to speak or hear.  Gerry and Natalie are alive and well also, and there is no hint of Mary returning in a possible sequel.  That was fine with me.  Frankly, having the evil being always come back in the end happens so often it’s boring.  Having a horror movie end with the evil thing gone forever is a novel concept I can get behind.

The movie I’ve described to this point sounds fairly pedestrian, right? About midway through the movie, however, I felt that the movie was saying something very unexpected, almost subversive. Let me give some kudos to the actors involved first.

Since I don’t watch The Walking Dead, I haven’t seen Harry Dean Morgan in anything since  Watchman (2009).  I liked his performance in this movie.  He gave his character a burned-out, hound dog charm.  I liked the collegial friendship that develops between Gerry and Natalie.  The movie keeps them as platonic friends, but hints at a potential romance.  Early in the movie, Natalie bought Gerry a drink when the two are at the same restaurant for dinner.  At the end, Natalie asks if Gerry will stay in town and work for the local paper.  The movie is chaste to a fault, but I could see those two becoming a bit closer in a sequel.  If that happens, Natalie definitely will need to make the first move.  (Or would it be the third?)

William Sadler does a nice job as Father Hagan, a character who you just know won’t make it to the third reel.  I can’t remember another priest in other movies as edgy as Father Hagen.  Movies tend to have priests being solemn, tranquil messengers of God.  I liked that Father Hagen was someone who was unsettled by what was happening in his church, in the name of his God.

Carey Elwes’ Boston accent is all over the map.  With his role in Stranger Things and horror movies like this one, he is having a bit of mini career resurgence.  I’ve never found him to be the most convincing actor, even when he was sawing off his own foot in Saw.  His lack of believability works in his favor here, as I never believed the Bishop had anyone’s best interest at heart besides his own.

As Delgarde, Diogo Morgado fits squarely into the “smoldering” category of priests (as Fleabag would say).  Having Mary smolder Delgarde to ashes has to be a bit of meta humor on behalf of writer/director Evan Spiliotopoulos.

And what about those subversive vibes I was referring to earlier?

The Unholy really isn’t a possession horror movie.  Alice is merely the way for Mary to gain followers and grow in power.  Alice is cognizant of what she is doing, she just mistakenly believes that the source of her power is divine.  The ability to perform miracles is typically the purview of those on the side of God, so this was an easy mistake to make.  Movies typically portray the unholy as rewarding the unjust and punishing those who would thwart their evil designs.  Since the movie is titled The Unholy, I immediately suspected that something is not quite right with Alice’s sudden transformation into a performer of miracles who can sing hymnals in perfect Latin.  That Father Hagen, someone who himself has been on the receiving end of a miracle, has his suspicions was an interesting twist on the genre tropes.

The quote from the Bible I included at the beginning of this review is what appears at the end of the movie.  The Unholy definitely has something to say, in regards to the apparent ease with which the faithful believe unquestionably someone who professes to be on the side of good and righteousness.  Alice, being young and innocent, can be excused for not fully understanding what is happening to her.  For her adults around her, this is a different story.

At first, Gerry is thrilled to finally have a story that will enable him to rebuild his career.  Then, he gets caught up in the frenzy surrounding Alice, and finds his skepticism being replaced by a desire to believe what Alice is saying is genuine.  Natalie is a person of science, her relationship with Alice, coupled with her faith, cloud her judgement.  She confirms that people have been cured of their incurable illnesses, and since science cannot explain how they were cured, she falls back on her faith for an explanation..

Only Father Hagen, whose profession is predicated on unwavering faith, is the true skeptic of the three.  He is clearly not comfortable with Alice’s newfound abilities, and is familiar with the cruel fate of others who professed to have witnessed miracles.  His continued doubt eventually helps him to reveal which Mary is actually speaking to Alice.  Father Hagen pays for his doubts with his life, but his murder and coverup by the church serves to rekindle Gerry’s skepticism.

Bishop Gyles has no problem with recasting Father Hagen’s death as a suicide.  As he puts it to Gerry, the Church is losing the battle against evil, and needs people like Alice to rekindle people’s faith in God.  Gyles knows about Mary Elnor, but chooses to ignore the obvious as a mere coincidence.  For Gyles, it’s better to have more believers on the side of God, regardless of who they believe in.

The Unholy appears to be saying, to me anyway, that members of organized religion in general and Christianity in particular, have no qualms with those who can deliver what they want, regardless of whether those who deliver are actually on the side of God.  Given that the movie was first announced in 2018, I’m taking a leap in thinking that the movie was made with allusions to the person who was President of the United States at the time.  The parallels are easy to make.  For four years, (some) people of faith, as well as (some) leaders of the faithful  readily accepted the overtures from someone in power who professed to be righteous with no evidence of being so.  Many people turned a blind eye to the obvious and put their faith behind someone who clearly did not deserve it just so they could get what they wanted.  Am I reading too much into a grade B horror movie?  See it for yourself and let me know.  Personally I’m with Father Hagen on this one.

Recent Possession Horror Movies

  • The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005)
  • The Last Exorcism (2010)
  • The Rite (2011) (starring 2X Best Actor winner Anthony Hopkins)
  • The Devil Inside (2012) (noteworthy for its abrupt ending)
  • The Possession (2012) (also starred Jeffrey Dean Morgan)
  • The Last Exorcism Part II (2013)
  • The Conjuring (2013)
  • The Vatican Tapes (2015)
  • The Conjuring (2016)
  • Incarnate (2016)
  • The Possession of Hannah Grace (2018)
  • The Nun (2018)
  • The Seventh Day (2021)

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