There’s something wonderful about a nice, quaint, standard horror movie. I don’t mind them here or there as long as they aren’t abysmal (I’m speaking as someone that found John Carpenter’s utterly predictable swan song The Ward to be watchable and mildly enjoyable). The COVID-19 pandemic forced us out of theatres for quite some time, leaving many going through a form of withdrawal, and now that we’re able to go again I feel nothing but absolute excitement at almost anything I see. As we sat down I looked at the Noovie reel playing in our local AMC (something I’d quite despised for some time) I thought, “Yes, tall woman, step on me and tell me about the latest TBS show that will be cancelled after one season.” I just…really missed going to the movies.
So The Unholy is a 2021 horror film from director Evan Spiliotopolous, based on the 1983 novel Shrine by James Herbert and released as one of the “welcome back to theatres” experiments a week ago. We open on a woman being burned at the stake, a mask over her face and a lot of pilgrims praying to God and holding a creepy doll. We then flash forward to the present day, following disgraced photographer Gerry Fenn (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), the film heads to Banfield Massachusetts for a good ol’ fashioned witch story. After falsifying photographs and evidence for a story and being axed as a result, this alcoholic cliche now takes photos for blogs and clickbait websites. Arriving in the small town, he’s led to a hollowed out tree where he sees the doll. Staying in character, he smashes it for a better photo and insists the guy that called the blog about it pose with the remains. When a young, local deaf girl named Alice Pagett (Cricket Brown) regains her hearing and begins hearing the voice of the Virgin Mary, Monsignor Delgarde (Diogo Morgado) and Bishop Gyles (Cary Elwes) arrive to test several following miracles to see if she’s the real deal. The catch? Alice only feels comfortable with Gerry Fenn, leading the man to the story that could redeem him in the eyes of the public.
This is a pretty standard horror film, laden with a lapsed Catholic that’s searching for any kind of redemption and jump scares and character actors that arrive seemingly out of nowhere. This wasn’t my first choice when headed back to the theatrical experience, instead hoping to see the new Ben Wheatley, but my fiancee was more interested in this so we compromised. The results? Turns out this is a pretty fun time if that’s all you’re looking for.
I love Jeffrey Dean Morgan. He’s had a decent career, but his name became known in 2008 when he starred as the Comedian in Zack Snyder’s adaptation of Watchmen. All of the sudden he was a hit name, one that never quite left the public consciousness but didn’t appear in anything big until his turn as Negan in the last five seasons of The Walking Dead. He doesn’t get as many starring roles as I’d like, but when we get the guy in the spotlight he shines. The work from the cast really does take this from being a boring schlockfest to a damn fun movie, with everyone involved giving full and excited performances. Gerry’s chemistry with Natalie Gates (Katie Aselton) is believable, even quite charming, and their dynamic with newcomer Cricket Brown acts as the foundation on which this otherwise shaky film is built.
Also Cary Elwes, simply because we love when the Dread Pirate Roberts deems to grace us with his appearance.
“Shaky” serves to be the right word for this film, but instead of an aging individual struggling to keep moving it feels like a baby deer struggling to stand for the first time. When a director has a hit debut we praise them and hail them as geniuses (Ari Aster and Robert Eggers are recent examples of this within the horror genre), but sometimes we get an interesting debut that isn’t quite all the way there. The Unholy is an excellent example, perfectly serviceable but with room for improvement that I can’t wait to see. The CGI is one of the main issues, with each instance being one that’s crying out for a practical shot. At one point Fenn dreams of a Samara-esque girl climbing out of a creek and lurching toward him on all fours, an image that looks silly and undercooked. It’s frustrating to consider that it would have been better to look at (and more budget conscious) to just wrap a woman in a wet, dirty dress and have her perform the same action on-camera. Instances like that pop up all over the goddamn place and it’s so frustrating, especially when everything else comes so close to being wonderful.
And that’s the kicker. “So close to wonderful,” a phrase that describes many films I enjoy. Elwes is bathing in glorious cheese while Morgan and Aselton take everything deadly serious, and it’s all wrapped in an oddly shot package that trips over itself. I genuinely enjoyed this film, but your takeaway will all depend on what you bring into the film with you. I went with glee, excited to see anything at all in a theatre and enjoying what I got despite the missteps made in the film’s production. If you go in looking for perfection or high art you’re going to be disappointed. I used to look forward to those films, but now I look at these 80s horror throwbacks and get butterflies in my stomach, excited to see new filmmakers play in this sandbox and look at what they have to offer. This won’t be for many of you, or even most of you, but I’ll always treasure it as the fun little Catholic/witch film that was my triumphant return to cinema.