PROPHET AND LOSS
The Unholy (15)
Review: RJ Bland
James Herbert is a name well known to fans of horror literature, especially here in the UK. Before his death in 2013, he had written over 20 novels and had sold an estimated 54 million copies of his books worldwide. Three years before his passing, he was honoured with the World Horror Convention Grand Master Award – which was presented to him by the world's most famous horror writer, Stephen King. Although Herbert may have lacked the finesse of King, his works are renowned for their uncompromising nature (there are some scenes in The Fog that are eye watering!) and a real sense of nastiness. King himself said of Herbert's most famous novel The Rats; 'If this is not a literary version of anarchy in the UK, what is?'. The viscera and brutality of many of his novels are perhaps why, compared to King, relatively few of his works have been adapted into films. The Rats, Survivor, Fluke and Haunted are the exceptions to the rule and whilst they have all been solid enough translations, we haven't had a Herbert adaptation for nearly 20 years. Isn't it about time that we were due for one? Well, Sam Raimi's Ghost House Pictures certainly believed so – enter The Unholy, a religious horror based on Herbert's 1983 novel Shrine.
In a rather savage opening scene (that Herbert would have probably been proud of), a woman accused of witchcraft is put to death in 1845 in a small Massachusetts town called Banfield. Before she dies, her spirit is bound within the body of a doll (called a Kern Baby). Flash forward to the present day and troubled journalist Gerry Fenn (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) heads out to Boston to investigate a cow mutilation. Although the farmer thinks it may be the work of a religious cult, it winds up just being a teenage prank. Before he leaves, a frustrated Fenn discovers the Kern Baby at the base of an old tree. Determined not to leave without a story, Fenn smashes the doll and spins a story of cursed doll and subsequent supernatural cattle mutilations. However when Fenn is leaving Banfield that evening, a girl runs across the road in front of him and causes him to smash head first into a tree. He follows her on foot into the woods to see if she's ok and discovers her beneath the old tree where he had found the doll earlier that day. Before she collapses, he hears her talking to an unseen presence. After she is checked out by the doctor, Fenn learns that the girl, Alice, is apparently deaf and mute. So how was she talking? He decides to stay in town to investigate what he thinks may be a bit of a scoop. The next day, Alice tells her fellow churchgoers that she has been cured by the Virgin Mary herself. After she heals a disabled child in front of the congregation, a media storm descends upon the small town of Banfield. Fenn is front and centre of the coverage and obtains exclusive access to Alice. But he soon grows suspicious that there may be something insidious behind these apparent miracles...
In the 1990's, David Cope, one of America's brightest young composers, created a bit of kit that processed the works of classical composers like Bach and Beethoven, and churned out musical pieces that could have been written by the masters themselves. He believed that a lot of music was 'inspired plagiarism' – and the music he created was essentially no more than recombined melodies and deconstructed elements stitched together. The Unholy kind of feels like the movie version of one of Cope's compositions. If you fed a load of quiet-quiet-bang horror movies in from the last decade or so, this would be the result. A film that hits every conventional beat and nails every trope, but that ultimately feels overwhelmingly average.
The set up and themes of The Unholy are actually rather intriguing; there's the potential to explore miracles and faith and religious institutions through a modern lens. Much of that is down to the source material admittedly but by the end of the first act, there is enough to work with to think that the film may offer up something a little more distinct from some of its peers. However, it seems have simultaneously failed on this front and also managed to upset certain sections of the religious community. If you're going to do the latter, at least give us something juicy! Alas, we have to make do with a film that feels the need to hold your hand at every turn, never really trusting its audience to read between the lines at any point and also one that relies almost entirely on a series of jump scares that for the most part, feel forced and a bit too random.
In many ways, it feels as if it could be one of those Conjuring spin-off movies that are usually a bit hit and miss and tend to rely on histrionics than effectively generating any real suspense or atmosphere. The Unholy never really establishes rules for its antagonist either, leaving everything feeling rather muddled. Why does it feel the need to jump out of people's laptops? Why does it look like that baby in the Tellytubbies?
Jeffrey Dean Morgan is always watchable and he's perfect for a grizzled, down on his luck reporter role like this. Whilst the script makes an effort to chart some kind of growth for this character, it fails to convincingly build any real human relationships in the process. There are characters who serve no real purpose and if they were removed altogether, it would have almost zero impact on the story. However the superfluous characters are not the main issue here. There are two main reasons why The Unholy fails to deliver the goods. Firstly, it's just so by the numbers and lacks any real personality or originality. We've seen all this stuff before and done much better. The jump scares feel like an overcompensation – almost an admission that there isn't much else here that is going to scare us in any way. And whilst a couple of these are half-decent jolts, they're not enough. Secondly, the film relies too heavily on CGI – and CGI that's not particularly good either. Some of the film's sins could be forgiven if it was at least scary, but there's not much chance of that when the baddie looks like something from a computer game. The fact that Covid disrupted production part way through filming might have had some impact on the finished feature, it's nevertheless still somewhat underwhelming.