The Unholy, by Cameron J. Czaja

Sometimes it’s tough being a fan of cinema and a devout Catholic. I mention this because this past weekend a certain film called The Unholy was released in theaters which drew many red flags in my head. One, for example, was the Good Friday release day. The marketing department behind it was doing everything they could to sell you on the film with their commercials, stating “On Good Friday, the Holiest day of the year, see the Unholy.” Another concern I had was the concept of the film itself, which is a religious horror film. Now, I’m not saying it’s a new thing as religious horror films have been made for several years, but I feel like lately Hollywood has been capitalizing more on religion for horror projects for a quick buck lately. I see it as religious appropriation. I had this epiphany when I first saw The Nun back in 2018, and honestly I’m getting quite annoyed both as a Catholic and a cinephile. Was The Unholy as blasphemous as the marketing made it out to be, or am I overthinking about the concept of this film? Let’s find out and spoilers will be present in this review.

Set in a small New England town outside of Boston, The Unholy follows Gerry Fenn (Jeffery Dean Morgan), a washed-up journalist and lapsed Catholic who is trying to find his next big story. When the lead he goes after doesn’t offer much, he stumbles upon a much bigger one involving a death-mute named Alice (Cricket Brown) who he claims heard her speak one night when he was leaving the small town. Alice is the niece of Father Hagen (William Sadler), who is a priest of a small parish in the town whom everyone in it respects deeply. Gerry decides to attend a service at Father Hagen’s church to follow Alice more closely. During the Eucharist, Alice starts walking outside the church which prompts everyone to follow her including Gerry and Father Hagen. Alice then confronts a small leafless tree outside the church where she starts speaking and says that she sees Mary. She then starts performing miracles such as helping a disabled kid walk, which astonishes everyone including Gerry who (as I mentioned earlier) is a lapsed Catholic. Thanks to Gerry, who documents these events via video, the world now knows of Alice and the miracles that she performed. This is good news for Gerry as he can now experience the fame that he’s been searching for quite some time. However, as the movie goes along, he begins to wonder if all the miracles that happen are genuine. After a couple of interactions with Father Hagen, who warns him with the phrase “wherever God goes, the unholy follows” and doing some further investigations, Gerry begins to wonder if something sinister is behind these events.

So, after watching The Unholy, I have some good news and bad news. The bad news is that it’s far from being a religious horror classic such as The Exorcist (1973). In fact, I’m probably going to forget about this film sometime in the near future as I watch more and better movies this year. The good news, however, is that it’s not as blasphemous as the marketing made it out to be and there were some things in this film that I did like. This was something I didn’t expect as I thought I was going to hate this film based off of what I saw.

I think what makes The Unholy an interesting film is how it presents itself with its theme. One theme in particular that it had was the Bible verse Matthew 7:15, which is be aware of false prophets. In fact, the film ended with that Bible verse in text before the credits rolled, which is something I appreciated. The reasoning for that is because the Mary that Alice claims she sees isn’t the Mary that many parishioners are praying towards. Instead, the “Mary” is a demonic being whose face resembles the Virgin Mary, and it leads people’s souls to into damnation. When Gerry puts the clues together as the film goes on, he then needs to make a tough decision: go along with it and become a famous journalist or give it all up so that he can save innocent lives. Gerry does the noble thing and claims he made up the story in front of a large congregation despite the risk of being labeled an atheist by a bishop. Despite that, Gerry still fights on and not only does he save a lot of souls, but also Alice who was victim number one by the false Mary. That particular character development from Gerry is what kept my interest throughout the film because in the end it’s someone we can all root for as he somewhat returned to Christ with his actions.

Now if The Unholy just offered more of what I mentioned in my previous paragraph then this would’ve been high recommendation. However, what keeps this from being that is the horror cliches that are present throughout the film, such as the unnecessary jump scares. Now, as someone who appreciates the horror genre, I don’t mind jump scares just to spice up the film. But when your film solely depends on that element just to scare you, then my interests starts to decline. The film already had the horror angle of the demonic being present in the town and the imagery alone would’ve sufficed. However, the film is doing what it needs to do to appeal to mainstream audiences, which I get, but the filmmakers could’ve done something clever with it. Oh well.

Another thing I wasn’t too keen on in The Unholy was how they portrayed certain clergy figures. One in particular was Bishop Gyles (Cary Elwes). He was someone who annoyed me throughout the film because he was portrayed as someone with major trust issues and focused too much on making the parish into a shrine. While the latter may not seem so bad, his actions on the whole ordeal is a little over the top where no reasonable bishop would act in that manner. Either the filmmakers didn’t care about how they would portray certain religious figures or they felt they needed a character to cause a dilemma just for the sake of the narrative. If I had to guess it’s probably both.

Maybe it’s because I was expecting the worst, but The Unholy is not the film you think it is as it does offer interesting elements that would make not only Christians think, but skeptics as well. That said, I don’t want this review to sound like a ringing endorsement as it’s a film that’s not something you should rush out to see. However, it’s not the worst thing in the world if you do see it, if you’re into horror. If you do get disturbed by horror, then I would definitely not recommend it as there are disturbing images, such as someone getting hung and other scenes that seem unfitting in a church setting. Just that last sentence alone wouldn’t make me want to see it if I haven’t done so already. All in all, The Unholy will be something (as I mention earlier) that I’ll forget as the year goes on but when I do remember it, it’ll have a more positive reaction rather than a negative one.

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