REVIEW: ‘The Unholy’ squanders potential with horror cliches

Here’s a horror movie that actually would have been better off had it not been a horror. At least not such a straightforward one.

“The Unholy” stars Jeffrey Dean Morgan as Gerry. A disgraced journalist with a history of fabricating stories, Gerry now works as a of paranormal reporter. He travels around to write about UFO sightings and haunting to make some cash. His latest story brings him to a small Massachusetts town, but unfortunately, the supposed subject ends up being dud.

However, as luck would have it, Gerry discovers an interesting artifact near a rural church. Following his discovery, a young girl named Alice (Cricket Brown), who’s been deaf all her life, can suddenly hear and talk perfectly. According to her, she can communicate with the Virgin Mary and begins performing miracle healings. Her miracles begin drawing a lot of positive attention, but while this is happening, Gerry starts to notice sinister signs.

There’s an alright story in “The Unholy” that touches on themes of hysteria, media attention and even capitalism related to dramatic events that happen from time-to-time. Following the story of a cynical, questioning journalist watch this situation unfold and see the impacts on individuals, and a small town, is actually pretty interesting.

However, so much of what makes the film engaging to watch is constantly tripped up by the PG-13 horror elements inserted regularly. This small Massachusetts town turns into Jumpscare City in “The Unholy.” It seems like every time a character turns around, there’s a loud screech of noise and suddenly a scary face at the camera.

There are plenty of horror cliches inserted, too. One example is Gerry and another character venturing into an old, dark shed with several white sheets covering furniture and figures, as if a bunch of ghosts are just waiting there for them. Typical stuff.

Courtesy Screen Gems, Ghost House Pictures and Sony Pictures.

The PG-13 aspect is noticeable, too, in how graphic things are. There’s little blood on display in “The Unholy,” and one of the main kills isn’t even shown. Instead there’s a jumpscare and a cutaway.

That’s not to say having a lot of blood and gore would have dramatically increased this picture, although it may have helped somewhat. It is to say, though, that it’s another example of this film being pushed into a more PG-13 formula simply to be a more marketable product.

It’s a shame, too, because if these PG-13 elements were stripped away, audiences could likely enjoy a more serious, suspenseful thriller. This is apparent because there are plenty of times when Gerry is having fairly interesting discussions with characters or researching history to figure out what’s happening.

These moments are actually where the movie works best. The film could’ve still been creepy and thrilling with dialing back those excessive horror tropes, too.

As for the acting, Morgan does give a solid performance as the lead protagonist. The character’s initial skepticism and later, his shock at the mystical developments are nicely portrayed by the actor.

Brown deserves credit as Alice, too. The character certainly could have been one note, but she’s portrayed as a more complex, multi-dimensional person, and Brown’s performance helps.

Writer and director Evan Spiliotopoulos had some good things going with this, but it feels as if somewhere along the way the film was studio-ized into a more cookie-cutter PG-13 horror film. There are things that really do work here, but the film is immensely held back by its shortcomings. 2.25 out of 5.

Author: Matthew Liedke

Journalist and film critic in Minnesota. Graduate of Rainy River College and Minnesota State University in Moorhead. Outside of movies I also enjoy sports, craft beers and the occasional video game.

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