Review: The Unholy, with Cheap Scares and Muddled Story, Doesn’t Live Up to Its Promising Premise

There are times when the premise of a film is far better than its execution; this is particularly true in the horror genre, where great ideas often go ridiculously off course with an over reliance on the same old jump scares and familiar imagery. And in the case of The Unholy, it’s PG-13 rating doesn’t help either. Not that the premise isn’t solid (not to mention the Easter weekend release, too): a young deaf girl named Alice (Cricket Brown) believes she has seen a vision of the Virgin Mary, and not only is her lifelong deafness cured, but she gains the ability to heal the afflicted. Coincidentally (or perhaps not), a middle-aged, disgraced journalist, Gerry Fenn (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), happens to be visiting the small New England town where Alice lives and gets ahold of the story first, becoming the only reporter Alice and the town trust and giving him a shot at redemption and reclaiming his former glory.

The Unholy Image courtesy of the film

But while Alice is healing and preaching the word of the good Virgin, ugly things are happening around town, making it clear that whatever has a hold of Alice’s mind and body may not be what she thinks it is. While the faithful flock to the town to worship at Alice’s feet and hopefully be cured by her, Gerry digs deeper into the phenomenon with the help of the official church delegates (led by Cary Elwes’ Bishop Gyles and Diogo Morgado as Monsignor Delgarde) assigned to debunk the so-called miracle, but even they seem hard pressed to deny what they witness. William Sadler plays Father Hagan, the town’s priest, who also happens to have raised Alice after her parents died; and Katie Aselton plays a local doctor who knows the medical histories of Alice and those she has healed.

The other things all of these people seem to have in common is that they know Fenn’s history of inventing facts on a big story or stories in order to hold onto whatever level of fame he had as a journalist back in the day. The details of the incident are fuzzy and probably shouldn’t be important, but people keep brining them up as a reason not to trust him, and eventually he even uses his bad reputation to save the day. Based on this and the interviews that Fenn conducts with Alice and those close to her during the film for a supposed piece he’s working on to get back in the world’s good graces, this is one of those films that doesn’t seem to understand how journalism works and how few actual “stars” there are in the field. But I digress, which is easy to do when you’re watching a horror movie that isn’t particularly scary either.

The film is visually interesting, so props to noted-screenwriter-turned-first-time-director Evan Spiliotopoulos (working from the book Shrine by James Herbert) on making The Unholy at least aesthetically interesting. But with too many jump scares and subpar ghostly effects, the film quickly lost me as it went on, despite its promising opening that links the devoutly religious practices of Catholicism and witchcraft. Morgan also is quite strong here, capturing his character’s desperation and making sure we understand that his road to the bottom of the news food-chain has been a hard one. I’m not sure the filmmaker meant to make the storyline about the failed journalist looking for a second chance more interesting than the creepy religious desecration stuff, but that’s what ends up happening.

If anything, the film feels cut down from a longer, likely more interesting story that fleshed out some of the people in the movie who barely make an impression. The film comes from producers Sam Raimi and Rob Tapert, which is not something I take lightly. But I’ve also learned that their Ghost House Pictures production label misfires as often as it doesn’t; it’s certainly not a stamp of quality all of the time. If you’re like me, you’ve been a little desperate to see horror films again with a theatrical audience, but I don’t think The Unholy is the film I’d recommend for that outing. There’s a new Conjuring movie coming out in two months; save yourself for that.

The film is now playing theatrically. Please follow CDC, health department and venue guidelines if attending indoor screenings.

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Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a frequent contributor at /Film ( and Backstory Magazine. He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.