As histrionic homophobes continue to lose their simple little minds over the “satanic” new video for Lil Nas X’s catchy queer hook-up anthem Montero, perhaps they should be a little bit more concerned about supernatural Sony horror The Unholy, rushed out for an Easter weekend release. Like many genre films about the fight between god and the devil, it’s an affirmative story for Christians (good and evil do exist in strict binary terms) but like many of them as well, it’s also a woefully ineffective one, turning what should be an easy piece of jolting propaganda into something so incompetent that even believers will struggle to care who wins. If the devil did exist then surely he’d have the power to destroy films as dull as this.
It has the cursed aura of something shot three years ago, shelved and then dumped, a doomed hobble to the screen that’s become more commonplace in the last year as studios have understandably used the opportunity to offload their damaged wares. But surprisingly here that isn’t the case and instead, The Unholy was actually in production as the pandemic struck, becoming one of the first films to grapple with the complexities of having to film around a deadly virus. Plaudits are then earned for this but precious little else, writer-director Evan Spiliotopoulos taking an intriguing concept and doing the very least with it, disappointment soon turning to disinterest.
Based on James Herbert’s 1983 novel Shrine, the plot follows disgraced journalist Gerry (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) as he tries to find a story worth getting paid for. His search takes him to a small New England town and Alice (newcomer Cricket Brown), a local hearing-impaired girl who claims she can now hear and speak because of a holy visitation. Her miracles start to spread throughout the community but they rely on ultimate, unwavering belief in Alice’s new friend “Mary”, and when that is tested, all hell, or at least the most boring part of it, will break loose.
It’s exhaustively well-worn territory but the premise does initially offer up the vague hope of an interesting spin, exploring the danger of automatic, unquestioning faith and a clear, juicy example of the Martin Luther King quote “For where god built a church, there the devil would also build a chapel”. But Spiliotopoulos, best known for having a hand in workmanlike blockbuster scripts like Beauty and the Beast, Hercules and Charlie’s Angels, is a disastrously unsure hand behind the camera, never quite managing to conjure up even the slightest ounce of menace with dated, cheap-looking visuals and a distinct dearth of dread. The creature that acts as a servant of Satan, killed back in the 1900s in human form and returning through Alice, is all jagged movements, crunching bones and extended claws, a cribbed, indistinct design that’s too lacklustre to evoke any real scares. The jumps employed by Spiliotopoulos are equally unsuccessful, as overused as they are over-emphasised, that familiar orchestral crash doing all the work over and over and over again.
Morgan does his grizzled B-movie best, slightly better served by what he has to play with than his co-stars: a confusingly accented Cary Elwes as a local bishop and a stranded Katie Aselton as the town doctor who is somehow remarkably an expert in every single medical field. The script’s many many shortcomings would perhaps be easier to forgive if the visuals were a little less shoddy, something that stings even more when one glances to the credits and sees producer Sam Raimi’s name. Raimi dragged us to hell back in 2009, but now his vision of hell is just a drag. The scariest thing about The Unholy is that he hasn’t disowned it.