Admittedly, the twist of James Herbert’s novel Shrine – that a supposed site of a miraculous manifestation of the Virgin Mary is actually haunted by evil – was given away by a) the cover image and b) the author’s byline … but going with The Unholy, a title last used on a Ben Cross possession movie in 1988, squelches any possible sense that this might not be going down a standard spooker route.
Writer-director Evan Spiliotopoulos opens the film with an 1845 prologue that is in several senses a different take on the beginning of Mario Bava’s La Maschera del Demonio – the camera takes the viewpoint of witch Mary Elnor (Marina Mazepa, voiced with an Irish accent by Lorna Larkin) as she has a mask hammered to her face by a righteous mob and is triply killed by being hung up in a tree, burned alive and having her wicked ashes trapped in a kern doll that’s stuck inside the tree. Bava’s villainess has to wear the mask of a demon, but Mary is mocked by having a mask of the Virgin Mary stuck to her face – I’m not sure if this is kosher Catholic witch-tormenting lore or not.
In the present day, alcoholic reporter Gerry Fenn (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) is in the vicinity of Banfield, Mass., to investigate supposed cattle mutilations and breaks the doll (which makes him responsible for the horrors to come, not that he dwells on that much). Deaf mute waif Alice (Cricket Brown) is cured and has a glowing Song of Bernadette vision of ‘the Lady’, and the tree becomes a tented shrine. Alice’s coughing priest uncle (William Sadler) is sceptical of this, even when he’s cured, but the bishop (Cary Elwes, doing a strangled Boston accent) sees opportunities for merch and a revival of faith. Monsignor Delgado (Diogo Morgado), the Vatican’s miracle buster, investigates but it’s the soaked journo who turns up the real backstory – though he then has to fight public opinion, vested interests and a Conjuring Universe-style spook with long spindly fingers and a hood to avert a mass disaster. It has a few decent jump scares, rushes through a lot of interesting material (mostly church history), and Morgan and Brown give it their best – but Katie Aselton is wasted as the town doctor/possible love interest.
Spiliotopoulos isn’t afraid to lean into the obvious, and does so repeatedly … statues weep blood, snarly faces loom out of dark spaces, the evil witch is EVIL, the drunken reporter is torn between redemption and career resurgence, dolls are creepy, old-timers explain local legends, mystic winds and fires break out, the soundtrack is awash with sighs and screeches, and the lot of the saintly Alice is unhappy. Most of Herbert’s novels read like they ought to have been filmed in Britain in the 1970s with John Thaw or Dennis Waterman in the lead, but almost all of the relatively few adaptations have relocated the action to other countries and lost his particular vibe – while the once-transgressive grue he was wont to dish out every other chapter somehow translates onscreen into 15 certificate fudge.
Contrast … The Unholy (1988) …