As theatres slowly re-open in America, studios are finally starting to unload their bigger movies. While religious horror The Unholy likely wouldn’t be considered a ‘big release’ amongst genre fans, Sam Raimi’s (Evil Dead, Drag Me To Hell) role as producer would have ensured a theatrical release. Raimi’s Ghost House Pictures has scored some winners with Don’t Breathe and the 2004 version The Grudge. Yet in spite of some promising promotional material. The Unholy hasn’t inspired much faith with critics. With so many demonic possession movies already out there, criticism has focused on The Unholy’s derivative story and dull scares.
When a down-on-his-luck reporter Gerry Fenn arrives at a small farm to investigate a paranormal occurrence-turned-hoax, he finds something more interesting. Hidden inside an old tree, Fenn finds an old doll often used by the superstitious to ward off evil. To drum up a story, Feen crushes the doll for a creepy photo-op. But he inadvertently releases a long dormant evil that lures a young deaf woman, Alice, to the tree. Claiming to be the spirit of the Virgin Mary, it restores Alice’s hearing and encourages her to reach out to unbelievers. As the Catholic Church takes notice and Alice’s following grows, Feen fears that the spirit is using the girl for more sinister plans.
The Unholy Doesn’t Possess Much in the Way of Originality
With so many religious horror movies out there, it’s admittedly pretty hard to find something fresh. Oftentimes you’d settle for a movie that just injects some fun scares into an old formulate. In spite of some enthusiasm and a decent budget, writer and director Evan Spiliotopoulos fails to bring much new to the table. By and large, The Unholy dutifully checks off well-versed checkboxes. Along with its naïve young victim, Spiliotopoulos includes a morally corrupt Church representative, a cursed artifact, and a non-believing anti-hero waiting for redemption. Will our hero regain his faith in time to save The Unholy‘s possessed victim? Odds are you already know the answer. Moreover, exposition-heavy dialogue exacerbates The Unholy’s reliance of subgenre tropes.
…writer and director Evan Spiliotopoulos fails to bring much new to the table.
What’s most unfortunate with the movie’s rote feeling is that there are a few genuinely interesting ideas scattered here and there. Even if it’s somewhat familiar, the premise of a cursed witch using the Holy Mother Mary to influence a young woman is disturbing. Certainly, there’s scary mileage in the idea. And while it hews closely to themes The Ring previously explored, The Unholy toys with ideas around the cult-like influence one can attain through media. Sadly, it’s a superficial treatment that gives way to Spiliotopoulos’ clumsy handling of the movie’s scares.
The Unholy Possesses Tepid PG-13 Scares and Blasphemous CGI
There’s nothing inherently wrong with PG-13 horror movies – a movie’s ability to get under your skin has nothing to do with just how graphic the material is on screen. Over the last several years, the genre has delivered numerous PG-13 movies that scared and thrilled in equal doses. So a PG-13 rating isn’t a problem here. Rather The Unholy suffers from a poor grasp of what actually frightens audiences. Most of the scares rely on loud sounds and sudden jumps, with some hitting their mark but most just falling flat. At times, Spiliotopoulos seems non-committal to his set-ups, while other times he fails to execute. A scene in a church basement with blankets ominously covering statutes is ripe for a good jump scare. But the scare is telegraphed and lands clumsily. An increasing overreliance on shoddy CGI sinks whatever potential existed.
Rather The Unholy suffers from a poor grasp of what actually frightens audiences.
Despite its generic story and scares, The Unholy benefits from performances that far exceed the movie’s quality. Having Jeffrey Dean Morgan (The Walking Dead) in your movie is never going to be a bad thing. Even when his character is little more than a collection of tired tropes, Morgan inhabits his character with a likeable anti-hero weariness. Both Cary Elwes (Saw) and William Sadler (VFW) are reliable character actors who always elevate material with their performances. And relative newcomer Cricket Brown holds her own next to the veteran cast with a believable performance in an otherwise …
The Unholy Can’t Exorcise Familiarity and Plodding Pace
Despite a talented cast and good productions values, The Unholy is a dull and derivative mess. Much of the problem here lies with Spiliotopoulos’ poor grasp of what passes for scary. What ends up screen is really a superficial level of scary. That is, The Unholy almost entirely relies on loud sounds and jump scares alongside its trope-heavy handling of its story. Though a few jumps hit their mark, Spiliotopoulos struggles to do much you haven’t seen in other movies. Poor special effects – and an insistence on putting those effects front row and center – further undermine this religious horror movie.
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