I have a major problem with horror movies that focus its terrors on religious mythology, specifically Judeo-Christian. It’s not that religion can’t be scary. Just look at The Exorcist, one of the greatest films of all time, and not just for the horror genre. My issue is that for the vast majority of these films, by framing them within the confines of the Church, the films presuppose not just the existence of the Judeo-Christian God, but also His dominion over mankind. It’s limiting and dismissive of the literally thousands of other faiths in this world, including ones that predate the Abrahamic ones by centuries. Part of why The Exorcist is so good is because Pazuzu is based on Babylonian and Assyrian myths, acknowledging how religion has evolved over the years. Without even being part of what Christians view as Hell, it was able to exploit those fears and be susceptible to their remedies because of common ancestry. That’s how you do it.
But sadly, that is very much the exception, and not the rule. I understand that most Western audiences, particularly in America, have at least some cultural rooting in Christianity, even if they’re not devout, but it displays a complete lack of logic (something organized religion in general has a BIG problem with) to assume that we in the audience subscribe to whatever version of faith is offered, and as such can derive legitimate scares from the idea of torment and damnation from that source. That’s not scary, that’s condescending.
This is why I went in to see The Unholy, the directorial debut from Evan Spiliotopoulos, a writer who mostly pens Disney movies, including the Beauty and the Beast remake as well as several animated direct-to-video movies. The premise of the film is very intriguing, the idea that one could worship a deity that they believe is performing miracles, only for it to be an agent of evil. To release such a film on Easter Weekend is honestly kind of ballsy, because it feels like you’re directly challenging the status quo and daring religious institutions to get offended.
Unfortunately, if God exists, this film may turn out to be a form of divine trolling. It’s boring, nonsensical, derivative, and utterly without logic, even within its own illogical framework. The film’s existence makes more of an argument for the idea that God might not be real than anything contained therein, because honestly, what just and loving God would allow for such shit to get green lit? What caring Lord would allow Sam Raimi (executive producer through his Ghost House Studios) to put his name on something so terrible? What divine ruler would release a horror film where the scariest thing is the fact that I had to sit through trailers for Fast and Furious 9 and Cruella? If The Exorcist is the Citizen Kane of horror films, then The Unholy is the Freddy Got Fingered of the genre.
Set in the fictional rural town of Banfield, Massachusetts (having lived in New England for nearly a decade before moving to L.A., I can vouch for the authenticity of the look of the area at least), the story is led by Gerry Fenn, a disgraced journalist (he apparently fabricated stories for “fame” purposes prior to the events of the film) sent out on a freelance assignment by a tabloid to get photos of mutilated cattle. He’s played by Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Negan from The Walking Dead, and the best way to describe his appearance is Negan with his bat replaced by a Sony product placement camera, so it’s impossible to take him seriously.
When his scoop turns out to be a bust, he notices a weird looking tree at the neighboring church. And by “notices” I mean it literally calls out to him. There he finds a porcelain doll wrapped in chains and stamped with the impossible date of February 31, 1845. He stomps on it for the sake of a photo, thinking he can spin something occult out of this to still get his miniscule payday. Later, a girl comes to the tree and starts talking to it. Her name is Alice, played by Cricket Brown, and she’s the orphaned niece of the town priest (William Sadler), who’s been a deaf mute all her life until now. Suddenly she can speak and hear perfectly, and it’s declared a divine miracle, especially when Alice identifies her healer as a holy woman named Mary. Through Alice, Mary is able to heal several sick and disabled people, to the point that the Vatican enlists a professional skeptic monsignor (Diogo Morgado) and the local bishop (Cary Elwes) to determine the veracity of the miracles and consecrate the church as a holy shrine if they prove true. Of course, being a horror film, we know there’s much more to “Mary,” and it’s all sinister.
There are many things that are messed up about this whole scenario, not the least of which is that there’s a young actress out there whose parents in their infinite wisdom decided to name “Cricket.” It’s also borderline painful to hear William Sadler and Cary Elwes try to do Boston accents. It really grinds my gears. And of course, there’s a healthy dose of jump scares and bone crunch body contortion lifted straight from much better Asian horror films from 20 years ago. Finally, from a technical aspect at least, the “visions” of Mary are so hilariously bad that people started staring at me in the theatre because I was laughing so hard.
But where this film really sucks is the hand-waving insistence on how all of this supernatural stuff works. First, as I mentioned before, you can’t presuppose that the Judeo-Christian faith is ironclad, especially not Catholicism, and especially to the point where scripture is referenced as if it’s common knowledge. We’re not a homogenous society. What if Gerry were, say, a Hindu? None of this film can then happen. He has to be a “lapsed Catholic” and find his faith again in order to have any redemption. Otherwise, by this film’s logic, he’s damned no matter what, and that’s just bullshit.
Second, it’s not a spoiler to reveal that the “Mary” Alice sees is obviously not the Virgin Mary, though that’s what everyone assumes. She’s the spirit of a woman executed by the Church in the film’s opening, with her evil sealed inside the “kern” doll, which is apparently a thing. She gains power through other people’s faith, and she punishes/kills those she considers to be doubters. But even within these rules that the film itself establishes, the menace is flimsy at best.
For one thing, if “Mary” were indeed the Virgin, why would she use the name, “Mary?” That’s an English translation of what theologians believe was her real name – probably Miryam or something similar. Why would she identify herself through a Eurocentric lens? The kern doll is marked with an “impossible” date under the belief that doing so would seal the evil away forever, but since when does God, Satan, or any divine being conform to our calendar? If they existed, it was long before what we use to measure time. At best, February 31 is just March 3. You’re not stopping the devil’s minions with semantics.
And most importantly, if “Mary” thrives on the prayers and faith of others, how exactly does that work? Everyone who witnesses her acts believes her to be the Virgin Mary, not some other lady (oh yeah, they refer to her as “The Lady” so many times I half wondered if Jerry Lewis had risen from the grave. Now THAT would be an Easter miracle!), so can she just intercept someone else’s prayers and emotions? They don’t believe in her, they believe in the Blessed Virgin. If someone says they believe in Santa Claus, I can’t suddenly change my name and magically receive letters asking for toys. They believe in an idea, an image, an abstract concept that they themselves may personify on their own personal terms, but someone else can’t hijack it and declare that it applies to them. And yet, her biggest threat is that she wants people to commit their souls to her so she take them to Hell. How would that be possible, even in a world where the God they describe is real? Wouldn’t He, as the Almighty, be able to overrule this loophole? These people committed to Christ’s mother, not someone with the same name. How come she gets their souls? Either God can’t intervene, in which case he’s not all-powerful, and thus unworthy of such worship and devotion, or He’d let millions be damned not knowing they were worshipping an imposter, which makes Him a dick. Either way, this is some bullshit of the highest order.
There are hints of a challenging, thought-provoking movie amidst the nonsense, but Spiliotopoulos doesn’t care to bring it out. Cary Elwes plays an opportunistic bishop who only cares about getting asses in pews. Why not explore the façade of performative, perfunctory exercises of faith? Why not allow for the possibility that “Mary” really is the Virgin, and that no matter what, innocent people can be killed by those said to represent the divine? Or at least leave some ambiguity for the first two acts to make us question where the film is going? There’s one brief moment where the film teases something beyond entry level, as a TV news reporter interviews local residents about the miracles, and one says he’s not happy and he’s getting out of town, because “God, the Old Testament God, sends floods and death.” That’s a good insight. When people “celebrate” their faith, they can conveniently ignore the fire and brimstone stuff (unless they wish to apply it to people they don’t like), never thinking they might become the target of God’s wrath. Go down that rabbit hole. See where it leads. Hell, I would have just been happy for Spiliotopoulos to get a committed performance out of William Sadler, who’s played an agent of the holy (Demon Knight) and Death itself (Bill & Ted movies), and gave wonderful performances with intentionally silly material, and that made him all the more convincing and memorable. Here it just feels like he’s on a 90-minute smoke break.
The movie, and Spiliotopoulos by extension, doesn’t give a damn about exploring any of these angles, or about answering any of the simplest narrative questions raised by anyone with even the smallest amount of critical thinking skills. Instead, the movie takes what could have been a provocative concept released on a provocative date, and just completely phoned it in. None of the characters are believable, there’s not one decent or original scare in the entire thing, and the movie cops out on its own premise for the ending.
So yeah, this film is a complete misfire, but just to hammer the point home, I’m going to introduce a new rule with my reviews. I call it, “Jump Fail.” Way too many horror films, especially the PG-13 ones that can’t have any fun with gore or heavier themes, rely on jump scares to try to pretend they have substance. I hate them with a fiery passion, because they’re lazy, cliché, and they try to pass off an involuntary bodily reaction to a sudden noise (it’s not even the image, it’s the loud, one-note music sting) as thrilling their audience.
So from now on, I’m instituting Jump Fail. I’m going to be very generous and allow a grace of five jump scares per movie. That’s six more than there should be, but I understand sometimes there are constraints beyond the creative control of the filmmakers, and that they have to occasionally do what they’re told by higher-ups. So I’ll allow for five. For every jump scare after the fifth, I deduct a grade marking. If you have five jump scares but an otherwise completely brilliant film, you can still get an A for the final grade. Once you hit six, the highest is an A-, seven caps you at a B+, and so on. Don’t worry about this new element skewing the grade for this film. It was already a failure long before that, but I’ve been so inundated with jump scares for so long that I actually go into every horror movie prepared to count.
This movie had 23 jump scares. In one hour, 39 minutes (including credits). That’s one jump scare every 4.3 minutes.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? Do jump scares force you to flinch? Who do you think is the one true God, and why is it the spawn of L. Ron Hubbard and the Flying Spaghetti Monster? Let me know!