In 1845, a crowd gathers in a field as a young girl is hooded and hoisted into the air by a rope tied to an old oak tree. The men surrounding the base of the tree light a fire, and a priest prays aloud, holding a doll in his hands. The crowd does nothing to help the girl as she is burned alive. The stage is set for The Unholy.
Almost two centuries later, Gerry Fenn (Jeffrey Dean Morgan, “Rampage”) buys coffee from a truck in the early morning before he gets a call to head out to small town Banfield, MA — “A little piece of God’s county.” A farmer relays a story about his cows being mysteriously mutilated, and is astonished when Gerry inquires about the farmer’s teenage son who, according to the benign spray-painted marking left on the cow, is probably a Metallica fan. The two men wander over to a twisted oak tree in the field as Gerry’s attention is drawn to an object catching the sunlight; he discovers a small doll in a hollow at the base of the tree. The doll is bound by chains and a small engraved plate that reads February 31, 1845 — an impossible date. Annoyed because his time was wasted and driven by the desire to get a story somehow, Gerry stomps on the doll and asks the farmer to pose next to it, fabricating a story about mutilated cows and a mysterious talisman found in a nearby tree.
Later that night, Gerry drives through the dark, winding roads on his way out of Banfield. He swerves to avoid hitting a girl standing in the middle of the road and crashes into a tree. Emerging from his car, Gerry follows the barefoot, white-nightgown clad girl back to the twisted oak where she drops to her knees and passes out. Bringing her to the nearby church, Gerry discovers she’s Alice (Cricket Brown, “Dukeland”), the orphaned niece of Father Hagan (William Sadler, “Bill & Ted Face the Music”). At mass the next day, Alice rises from her seat in the front of the church, and leaves the church with young girls trailing behind her; she walks directly to the oak, and laying her hands on its trunk, speaks to the astonished crowd behind her. She has seen a vision of a woman bathed in white light, and she tells them she has seen Mary. Within days, people gather around the church asking for Alice to heal their ailments, and the Boston Diocese sends representatives to investigate. As Alice continues to hear from Mary, her fame grows, and her miraculous gifts garner more and more attention to the small town. But Gerry, on the other hand, starts having visions himself — visions of a dark hooded figure with skeletal hands, and he begins to wonder if these miracles are a different type of fabricated story, one that will have dire consequences for the townspeople . . .
Based on James Herbert’s novel The Shrine, writer/director Evan Spiliotopoulos’s The Unholy is a tale about how a young girl’s religious faith is manipulated by an evil entity, and how the adults around her desperately yearn for something good in the world, oftentimes causing them to disregard signs of trouble. Cricket Brown plays sweet devout Alice with wide-eyed wonder, and her charm shines through as the type of girl any community would immediately support as a young prophet. Jeffrey Dean Morgan is well-cast (arguably typecast) as the gruff and scruffy Gerry, a washed-up journalist who ruined his career by fabricating news stories for fame and recognition; his skepticism plays at center stage when he deals with Diocese representatives Bishop Gyles (Cary Elwes, “No Strings Attached”) and Monsignor Delgarde (Diogo Morgado, “The Killer”). They grant him exclusive access to Alice, and he plays well back and forth between the kind yet past-his-due disbeliever and shady storyteller looking to cash his way back into the business.
Brown and Morgan are skillfully supported by Sadler and Katie Aselton (“Black Rock”) who plays Dr. Natalie Gates, a woman fiercely protective of Alice. They are very believable as the adults who most care for Alice’s well-being and play wonderful contrasts to Elwes’ smarmy Bishop. When Elwes appears on screen, you are most reminded of watching “Law & Order” episodes; when a bigger name cameos, you know they’re likely to be playing the bad guy, and Elwes’s caricature-ish Massachusetts accent doesn’t help his believability. There are some bright lights in Alice’s supporters, most notably Madison LaPlante as a teenage girl who desperately needs to believe in Alice’s miracles, and Sonny and Danny Corbo who play Toby Walsh, the wheelchair-bound teenager whose sweet and shaky first steps are among Alice’s first miracles. Seeing the Corbo boys on-screen brings a special smile to my face because they’re local actors from my home state — shout-out to Little Rhody!
As a whole, The Unholy works as your standard PG-13 horror fare; there are plenty of jump scares (many of the ineffective variety) and the story unravels in the expected ways. Characters investigate the local history in cobwebbed storage areas and shadowy archive libraries, and there’s little ambiguity behind the character arcs. Each character plays out exactly as you expect them to, and the convenient revelations appear just in time to move along the story. Adult horror fans have already seen (and seen and seen) the tropes found in this film, but young teenagers will enjoy it as an early entrance into religious horror. It’s not a bad or boring film by any stretch, but it’s not something that will have much staying power in the long run.