When looking for a good horror movie to watch a few weeks ago, The Unholy (2021) caught my eye. The film came out on April 2, Good Friday, of this year and is based on the novel The Shrine (1983) by James Herbert. While The Unholy seems to have gone under the radar for many, I truly appreciated this film as a satisfying supernatural thriller about how evil can pose as goodness.
In the year 1845, a woman accused of witchcraft is executed in Banfield, Massachusetts. Before she dies, however, her spirit binds to the body of a doll. Many years later, in current times, disgraced journalist Gerry Fenn (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) is exploring Banfield looking for a story that could relaunch his career. Upon discovering the cursed doll, he crushes it for some pictures. Later, while driving at night, he almost crashes into Alice Pagett (Cricket Brown). Upon making sure that Alice gets safely home, Fenn meets Alice’s uncle, Father Hagan (William Sadler), and the town physician, Natalie Gates (Katie Aselton), and learns that Alice is deaf and mute. The next day, Alice shocks her whole community by interrupting mass at her church to announce that the Virgin Mary has spoken to her and healed her. Alice then performs what appears to be a miraculous healing. Soon, Banfield is swept up in a media fervor as Alice performs more healings and proclaims messages on behalf of the Virgin Mary.
The future looks promising for all involved as Fenn’s coverage of the events in Banfield boosts his career prospects. The Catholic Church sends Monsignor Delgarde (Diogo Morgado) and Bishop Gyles (Cary Elwes) to investigate Alice’s claims in order to see if Banfield could qualify as the location of a shrine. However, Father Hagan, who has been doubtful of both the miracles and Alice’s claims and suspects a malevolent entity, is able to discover the truth about Mary Elnor (Marina Mazepa), the witch executed in 1845. Mary Elnor had sold her soul to Satan in exchange for eternal life, power, and the promise that she would live through her descendants. Upon realizing that Alice is a descendent of Mary Elnor, Father Hagan plans to warn Alice but is killed by Mary Elnor’s spirit before he can intervene. In the final scenes, Fenn and Natalie discover the truth and rush to warn Alice and prevent Mary Elnor’s spirit from cursing the whole community.
The thought-provoking themes of the film are what primarily caught my attention. The main plot concept, that an ostensibly divine apparition could be demonic, suggests that real-life apparitions such as Our Lady of Fatima and Our Lady of Guadalupe may not have been what they seemed. While it is not the place of this article to examine the veracity of these apparitions, the idea that children can become both celebrities and victims of spiritual abuse via malevolent spiritual forces makes for an interesting story. The concept of spiritual abuse was especially noticeable to me through the character of Bishop Gyles, who knew about the curse but wanted to keep the truth a secret because Alice’s visions and miracles were drawing people back to the Catholic Church.
Finally, I enjoyed the character development, particularly the friendship between Fenn and Alice. In an almost father-daughter like relationship that blossoms between the characters, Fenn transforms from an opportunistic journalist out to exploit Alice into her protective friend. The scene in which Fenn gifts Alice with a mixed CD to catch her up on the decades of musical genres she missed out on growing up deaf is particularly touching. Most meaningful, however, is that fact that Fenn is able to sacrifice his last hopes of having a successful career as a journalist in order to rescue Alice. In exchange for worldly fame, Fenn regains his faith, the demonic spirit is banished, and all is restored to its proper place.
The plot of The Unholy is concise and self-contained, wrapping up in the end without any loose threads, which is something I appreciate in horror movies. In addition to being a good supernatural thriller, the film is an examination of how evil can pose as goodness and beauty. It is one of the better horror movies I have seen in a long time and is the type of movie I would like to see more of.
- Director: Evan Spiliotopoulos
- Starring: Cricket Brown, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Katie Aselton, Marina Mazepa, Diogo Morgado, Cary Elwes
- Produced by: Sam Raimi, Robert Tapert, Evan Spiliotopoulos
- Production companies: Screen Gems, Ghost House Pictures
- Distributed by: Sony Pictures Releasing