‘The Unholy’ Review: Dir. Evan Spiliotopoulos [A Scare a Day]

Based on James Herbert’s 1983 novel Shrine, The Unholy, directed by Evan Spiliotopoulos,  was one of the first films released into cinemas when they reopened in May. Opening alongside higher profile horror franchises such as Saw and The Conjuring, The Unholy got a little lost. Now though, the film gets its second chance as it arrives on DVD, Blu-Ray, and Digital platforms. Herbert’s original prose placed the story amongst a sleepy British village and explored themes of mass hysteria, faith healing, and demonic possession. Although the themes remain the same for the movie, the setting is relocated to backwoods America. 

The Unholy stars Jeffrey Dean Morgan as besmirched journalist Gerry Fenn, a man who makes his living reporting on the supernatural occurrences of the world. In need of spicing up his latest story about a mutilated cow, he unknowingly sets off a cataclysmic chain of events revolving around a young deaf-mute woman called Alice (Cricket Brown). Alice has been unable to hear or speak since an accident as a child, but after a visit from a spiritual figure called Mary, she finds that she can suddenly talk and hear the world again. Gerry jumps on the story with the rest of the world quickly following. As word of Alice’s miracle spreads, so too does the power of Mary, could the entity really be who she is claiming to be? 

The Unholy was one of many film productions that had to be put on pause because of the Covid-19 outbreak. The film initially began principal photography in February 2020 before being put on hold the following month. Cast and crew returned as soon as they were allowed to; the filming restrictions placed upon the production have clear;y taken their toll on the film. When watching, it’s easy to guess which parts were filmed pre and post shutdown. Characters suddenly start communicating over phone or video call when a meet up would be equally easy and the contrived ways of creating space between the actors on screen are obvious.  

Were it not for the inclusion of Jeffrey Dean Morgan, the wheels might fall off of The Unholy almost entirely. The plot is nothing new, having been covered in one guise or another several times over. Evan Spiliotopoulos also leans heavily into genre tropes and attempts to pump the film full of ‘jump scares’. These moments are handled very heavily with most of them glaringly obvious from what feels like scenes before. Having Morgan in the lead role helps steer The Unholy back from the brink of mediocrity, and instead raises it to an average Friday night watch. Jeffrey Dean Morgan is always a reliable casting decision, the actor puts everything he has into every role placed in front of him. It is his performance that saves The Unholy from becoming a throwaway horror. Variations on this type of story have been regurgutated on screen countless times with The Unholy sticking very close to what we have seen before. Morgan’s commitment to Gerry allows The Unholy to transcend some of its lesser well-cast peers. Not all of the casting is a hit though. Whilst William Sadler is great as Alice’s guardian Father Hagen, and Cricket Brown does some compelling work with Alice herself, it is Cary Elwes who lets the side down. He plays a Bishop charged with uncovering whether the site of Alice’s healing is worthy of miracle status, one with one of the most questionable accents to hit the cinema. The Bishop is apparently from Boston, and so too occasionally is Elwes, his accent slipping not only from phrase to phrase, but also word to word.   

This is Spiliotopoulos’ debut so some mistakes can be forgiven, it also can’t have been the easiest of first time features with a global pandemic disrupting production. With a little finessing, The Unholy has potential. Spiliotopoulos does a great job at adapting the text and his modernising of Herbert’s work is especially interesting. The hysteria around the event feels more impactful in our modern day setting. Here, Alice essentially goes viral and Spiliotopoulos uses the story to explore fame and its power to seduce and corrupt. Gerry was once a popular and famous writer, one who thrived on attention, his need having driven him to something silly to try and remain relevant. When we are introduced to him, he is a shadow of the celebrity he once was, Morgan painting a sad visage of what happens to those that quickly disappear from the limelight in the midst of controversy. Watching the struggle that Gerry goes through gives The Unholy an extra layer of interest, Spiliotopoulos addressing that fame and all its accoutrements really can be as addictive as any substance you can put in your body. Gerry’s turmoil is exacerbated further through his confliction towards Alice. Part of him is jealous, the other is protective, him wanting to shield her from what may be lurking around the corner. Unfolding in parallel is Alice’s own journey through fame. It’s overwhelming at first, but she soon gets swept up in the power of the crowd. Spiliotopoulos does great work showing both sides of the coin, and The Unholy is richer for its inclusion. 

The Unholy is available to own now.