Hello, everyone! The Catholic Church and horror movies have always gotten along like a house on fire, and recent box-office smashes like The Conjuring and The Nun have further demonstrated the market’s insatiable hunger for frightening tales of devil worship, evil nuns, and zealous priests. Like most horror movie genres, the scary Catholic bit has been done to death, but every once in a while, a new movie comes along that restores one’s faith (forgive my pun) in the practice. Evan Spiliotopoulos’ new film The Unholy does the trick. Focusing on genuinely skin-crawling imagery, a tight plot, and strong acting by its central cast, the film avoids the pitfalls of the genre, even if it does end up coming off a little preachy.
Synopsis: Disgraced journalist Gerry Fenn (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) travels to the little town of Banfield, Massachusetts to document a supposed case of cow mutilation for his tawdry paper. Although the case turns out to be teenage pranks, Gerry discovers a kern baby hidden in a tree, and delighted by its creepiness, breaks the figurine and invents a story about a malevolent doll haunting the town. As Gerry is leaving Banfield, he almost crashes his truck into Alice (Cricket Brown), a teenage girl wandering in the road, and follows her back to the tree, where he hears her talking to an unseen voice. Soon, Alice begins performing miracles in the town, claiming that she’s taking orders from The Lady Mary herself, and the Catholic Church comes to investigate. Blown away by Alice’s powers, Gerry finds himself believing that for once, he might have stumbled upon a truly unbelievable story. But as Gerry learns more about the kern baby, and Banfield’s past, he starts to question whether the source of Alice’s powers are as innocent as they seem.
My thoughts: From the first scene, The Unholy is a deeply unsettling film. Thrust into the past, and assuming the perspective of a character whose view is obscured by a mask, we can see little, but the sounds of flames, and the screams of the character whose perspective we’ve been forced to take, are frightening enough. Once the movie jumps into the future, the plot steams ahead briskly. Lots of horror movies lose momentum after the scary opening scene, but The Unholy wastes no time in introducing its cast of characters, outlining their motivations, and setting the scene for the conflict.
The imagery in the film is textbook creepy Catholicism, but still well done for that. Like they say, if it’s not broke, don’t fix it, and little can be done to improve the inherently macabre nature of old churches and eerie statues of the Virgin Mary. Simple motifs, such as the stark outline of a whitewashed church steeple, or the skeletal silhouette of a withered tree, are used to great effect. The camera is always moving, slithering slowly through the aisle of an empty church, or down the hallway of a desolate hotel, filling the viewer with a creeping dread. And although the film does employ several jump scares, they never feel cheap. One moment in particular caused my friend and I to shout out loud, and we were covering our eyes for a good part of the film.
My favorite part of the movie was the character design of the “evil.” Without going into too much detail to avoid spoilers, the movie actually managed to create a uniquely scary-looking character that I’d never seen before, and didn’t ruin the viewing experience by showing too much too soon. Lately, horror movies all fall into the same trap of creating scary white-faced demons, but The Unholy, while clearly taking inspiration from a popular character design trope, created an evil villain that was horrifying to look at. And for once, there was a villain whose motivation made sense! So many horror movies just throw scary things at the wall and hope they stick, but everything this character did made sense and seemed possible within the bounds of their characterization.
Catholic horror movies usually go a certain way, with a character being possessed by an evil spirit, and the Church stepping in to try and exorcise the evil. The central question of these movies is often centered around how far “good” characters will go to expel evil from an innocent, even if it means risking their life. Taking an unexpected route, The Unholy asks a different question: how much faith should we put in the Church itself? For a world starved of miracles, Alice’s newfound powers fill a void, and her kind nature capture the hearts of million around the world. Gerry finds fame in telling her story, and even gets the opportunity to have his old job back. The Church, ebulliant from the free publicity, declares Banfield a shrine, and does its best to capitalize off of Alice’s powers. But when things take a turn for the worst, the Church is reluctant to admit its mistake. Several characters in the film warn against believing in miracles, and believe that each time God appears on Earth, the devil isn’t far behind. Since the Church’s whole schtick rests on its flock believing in the possibility of God’s miracles, they are loath to lose the public’s faith, even if that faith might do them harm.
That the Catholic Church might not always have its flock’s best interest in heart is not a super deep take, but compared to the genre’s usual zealous belief in the almighty power of God, it’s refreshing to see a new perspective. In movies like The Conjuring, priests beat back evil with a bible in one hand and a rosary in the other. In The Unholy, it’s not faith that can defeat the Devil, but doubt.
A quick skim of the Rotten Tomato reviews show that this film is not popular among critics, but as usual, I think that they went in with inflated expectations. Horror movies are basically bare-bone themes expressed through terrifying visuals. Characters are usually flat, and profound introspection is scant. Yes, movies like The Babadook, The Witch, Hereditary, and Midsommar have spoiled critics by providing horror movies with prestige drama quality characterization and plotting, but those are outliers of the genre. A few diamonds in the rough have made the whole genre seem like coal in comparison. I’ve seen so many bad horror movies that I know a good one when I see one, and The Unholy is a good horror, even if it’s not a great film.
Final consensus: The Unholy provides a unique spin on the horror-meets-Catholic Church genre by removing the religious blinders and asking some deeper questions. With some freaky visuals, a unique evil villain, and strong acting by its leads, the film will definitely raise the hairs on the back of your neck, and maybe even make you think twice about going to Mass.