Jeffrey Dean Morgan (Watchmen, The Walking Dead) stars as Gerry Fenn, a smirking, silver-haired wiseass, who was once a well-respected reporter. Nowadays, he’s a disgrace, so says his mile-long stare and the flask he’s shaking into his morning coffee. Desperate for a paycheck, he drove from Boston to Banfield to chase down a story that seemed ridiculous from the pitch. Once it didn’t pan out, he decided to make some news by smashing a strange token he found buried in an eerie tree. When Alice began speaking and spurring talk of miracles soon after, Fenn believed his luck had finally turned. That is until he started uncovering unnerving truths about The Lady, which pitches him into a quest to stop her, whatever the cost.
Morgan alone might be reason enough to give The Unholy a watch on a lazy weekend. He wears Fenn’s world-weariness like a comfortable leather jacket, coolly and with swagger. There’s a wicked mischief in his crooked grin that makes moments where he riles frowning priests an illicit pleasure. Then, surprisingly, in comes warmth when Fenn interacts with Alice. While he is a liar, he believes she’s the real deal. His desire to exploit her story and protect her wage a quiet war within him, which makes for the film’s emotional core. Brown plays Alice as little more than wide-eyed and beguiled. Her scenes of preaching and piety are one-note. But when she’s onscreen with Morgan, there’s an easy father-daughter vibe that grounds the emotional stakes at play here.
The supporting cast is peppered with familiar faces, including Christine Adams (Black Lightning) as a slick magazine exec, Katie Aselton (The League) as a local doctor, Cary Elwes (Stranger Things) as a smirking bishop, and William Sadler (Bill &Ted Face The Music) as the local priest who raised Alice and is raising concerns about these curious events. Sadly, each is given little to play beyond what these simple descriptions suggest. Spiliotopoulos’ adapted screenplay makes no time for creating fleshed-out supporting characters; he needs that space to deliver tedious exposition for a twist that is anything but.
The plot is painfully straightforward. While Fenn and friends peruse ancient artifacts and stroll through the town’s grim history for clues, the film’s opening scene drops all the hints the audience needs to have a pretty solid idea of who “The Lady” really is. In a thriller, suspense is born from the audience knowing a little more than the protagonist. But Spiliotopoulos gives away too much for us to feel the thrill. Only newbies to horror won’t know exactly where this story is going. For anyone else, the plotting will be punishingly plodding.
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A predictable plot might have saved by some spectacular scares. Regrettably, Spiliotopoulos wouldn’t know a good scare if it jumped up in his face. Actually, that’s the only scare he knows. A cloaked ghoul with a withered face stalks Fenn. It’s a menacing mockery of the standard Virgin Mary statue, posing with its long, raw, clawed fingers pointing up in prayer position, while its marred head tilts gently to one side. It’s a decently disturbing design. But Spiliotopoulos throws it at the screen again and again, in the same jump scare in diminishing returns until it’s more annoying than harrowing.
When it comes time for the kills, punches are pulled throughout with offscreen or obscured violence. You can see that PG-13 rating as clearly as the CG fire that instantly engulfs victims, and keeps us from actually seeing anything through the flames. God forbid we see any carnage that might actually spook us!