Unheralded at the time, The Unholy deserves a rekindling of faith.
There’s not much that’s particularly cinematically original in THE UNHOLY, the directorial debut of veteran screenwriter Evan Spiliotopoulos (directing from his own screenplay adaptation from James Herbert’s novel THE SHRINE), but what I find remarkable about it is how closely it captures the ambiance and atmospherics of its source material’s style. If the titles hadn’t confirmed it, I’d have known in my bones that this was a film based on the writings of James Herbert.
When disgraced journalist Gerry Fenn (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) accepts an assignment to rural Banfield, Massachusetts to cover a case of suspected cattle mutilation, he uncovers an old corn baby doll and crushes it. Forced to stay in town after a near-miss accident with Alice (Cricket Brown), a sleepwalking young deaf and mute girl who regains the power of hearing and speech following a vision of the Virgin Mary at the site where Fenn had broken the doll. Finding himself at the epicentre of an unfolding series of wonderous phenomena, Fenn begins to suspect that something else, something more malevolent, may be behind the seemingly miraculous events.
Morgan is perfectly cast as the cynical journalist whose grizzled scepticism both challenges and is challenged by the events unfolding in front of him and he’s got great support around him in William Sadler as a doubtful priest who fears the miracles and Cary Elwes as Bishop Gyles whose primary interest in the events in Banfield are their lucrative potential.
While the story of a malign force using beneficent acts to win people to their cause isn’t new, the cinematography and the setting help to drive a powerful sense of foreboding that gives the somewhat familiar James Herbert plot points (a flawed lead character encounters an event which reflects his own transgressions and he’s forced to atone for his previous acts through suffering and revelation) a real chill. Ultimately it’s the source material and the name-laden cast that elevate this above the average demonic thriller, and while you may have missed it first time round due to its release in the dark early days of the post-COVID cinema release recoveries, if you’re a fan of either of those you’re in for a treat, no trick.