“The Unholy” (2021) is an American horror movie about a young deaf girl who believes she was cured by the Virgin Mary who speaks to her but is it all what it seems?
We begin the movie with Negan, sorry I mean Gerry, a reporter played by Jeffrey Dean Morgan, heading out to a small forgotten Massachusetts town to investigate a supposed occult cow mutilation. We quickly learn he’s a washed up reporter now working for whatever the equivalent of Buzzfeed is in this universe. The mutilation of the cow was actually someone painting a Metallica logo on it. With a now busted story he needs to come up with something so he can get his paltry pay. Walking around to take some pictures of a spooky looking dead tree on the property he finds an old doll underneath that looks even spookier still. To gin up the story he breaks the doll and takes pictures of the farmer near it so he can spice it up a little bit. Unfortunately the doll was binding an evil spirit, which we got a little glimpse of that at the beginning with a 19th century witch burning/execution flashback scene shown through the eyes of said witch.
Pathetic story in hand our washed up reporter is driving home drinking when a girl in a white nightgown suddenly appears in the road. He swerves to miss but crashes the car. He followers her as she walks towards the dead tree that he found the doll under earlier. She says something then collapses. He brings her to the church across the road where the priest, Father Hanagan played by William Sadler, calls a doctor as she slowly revives. She turns out to be Alice, Father Hanagan’s deaf and mute niece, played by Cricket Brown. Upon discovering she is deaf and mute he tells them the story about her speaking at the tree. They don’t believe him and chalk it up to being pretty drunk. The next day however she gets up in the middle of a church service, approaches the tree again and starts speaking saying “Mary saved me”. They all are overcome with shock and joy. She then goes on to heal a boy in the crowd who can’t in the name of Mary. The whole thing spirals up from there with church elders like the area bishop, played by Cary Elwes coming in with an investigator to prove/disprove the miracles, lots of people flocking to the site for healing, et cetera. All the while though you can see hints that things aren’t what they appear.
It’s not even that subtle, really. From the very beginning when we first start having the healings we notice that Mary’s call of faith isn’t to a faith in God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, or the Trinity but to Mary herself. Coming from a Catholic background I am more than familiar with so-called Marian worship of the Virgin Mary but it was never as Mary a god but more Mary an emissary of Jesus. I understand why someone who was just healed of life long deafness and muteness or muscular dystrophy would miss this not so small point. However the Bishop who comes to town with a supposed skeptical eye and his researcher, Monsignor Delgarde played by Diogo Morgado, who was skeptical even after watching miracles seem to miss that despite all of these interactions being recorded. It left me feeling it was way too convenient. It’s not like the audience doesn’t know there is a nefarious person behind this based on other visual and story clues, so what is the point of this obtuseness? Then as time goes on the Bishop goes from skeptic to practically televangelist culminating in some weird Marian worship prayer that sounded very off to me too. I admit that I am two decades or more out from regular church service and now an atheist/agnostic but even to my ears it sounded like a caricature of Marian worship invented by some anti-Catholic Protestant preacher. The creature itself and effects around it though were really well done.
For me a horror movie is about if you get that creepy feeling or get a good few shocks out of me. I got both of those. The special effects team did a great job both with the various manifestations of the Mary creature as well as interlacing them in in ways that turn what seem like an obvious place for a jump scare into still one that jolted me. They also gave it some very creepy unnaturally jerky movements which further amplified this effect. It was so effective that even when the creature was shown out of focus in the background I got the creeps. In fact they were effective enough at it that sometimes I thought I was maybe seeing the creature out of focus in places where it wasn’t. Again just very well done.
I imagine that if I was a bible believing Christian I probably would have felt more connected with this whole devil in sheep’s clothes thing. I remember thinking when watching The Devil’s Advocate (1997) back when I was still a practicing/believing Catholic. To me it just rang pretty hollow but no more hollow than say the curse of Imhotep in The Mummy (1999). I’m just thinking that if I was still a believer in the religion this is based around the movie would have freaked me out far more than it did.
Overall the movie was enjoyable, especially the special effects and the few jump scenes that got me. The above mentioned overly convenient obtuseness, over the top Catholic Marianism caricature, and some uneven acting performances dinged it a bit for me though. I’m going to give it a 6 out of 10.