A cautionary tale from director Martin Guigui about bullying and revenge in small-town Arizona. Not perfect, but effective use of some unusual elements makes for a creative story.
I came to The Unhealer for Lance Henriksen and Natasha Henstridge, and I stayed for the story. The core of the plot – tables being turned on teenage bullies – may well be a familiar one but there are several interesting elements that add dark twists to the story and the outcome is an entertaining watch.
Kelly (Elijah Nelson, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend) is a teenager whose reputation for “eating trash” has resulted in him being picked on by classmates for many years. In fact, this is an eating disorder known as pica, and it makes him steadily more unwell and undernourished. Kelly’s mother (Natasha Henstridge, Species) encounters the “Reverend” Pflueger (Lance Henriksen, Near Dark, etc.) healing back and leg ailments for a fee, and asks him to treat the boy. Pflueger’s ability isn’t a gift from God, though, but rather stolen from a Native American burial site, and it brings Kelly an unexpected side-effect: from that day on, when someone hurts Kelly, that person feels the pain instead. It’s a kind of superpower that becomes especially creative when combined with Kelly’s consumption of inedible objects. Thus bullying leads to pushing back, which results in accidents, misguided payback; and heads in the direction of mutually assured destruction.
The now-eighty-year-old Henriksen played a fabulous role, a coarse spoken charlatan who – as far as he was concerned – simply discovered a resource to be exploited. Pflueger is a little larger than life than roles I’m used to seeing him play, but he was a joy to watch, albeit for a brief spell; at least he was able to give The Unhealer a strong opening. I’d not come across Elijah Nelson before, and he impressed me, relishing his character’s supernatural and vengeful arc, yet without overplaying any of it. The other person who stood out to me was the relative newcomer Kayla Carlson, who played classmate and would-be girlfriend Dominique: she seemed natural playing a part that was both cool and sympathetic.
The structure of The Unhealer‘s plot reminded me in some ways of previous teen sci-fi thrillers such as Project Almanac and Chronicle: the lead character(s) find themselves with an ability which starts off as something fun to be embraced, and later they get carried away with possibilities, or the power becomes too big for them. This structure works well for a cautionary tale, which is certainly what The Unhealer is, in a number of respects: with regard to bullying (of course), but also retaliation, and – the perennial horror staple – messing with things you don’t understand. I had assumed that the idea of messing with Native American things was a dated concept by now, but perhaps writers J. Shawn Harris and Kevin E. Moore are fans of Poltergeist and Pet Sematary: it certainly felt contemporary somehow in the film. Anyway, director Martin Guigui manages this interesting blend of themes and issues well, developing the characters and their story with understanding.
Yet The Unhealer is just as dark as Chronicle, though more violent; perhaps unsurprising, with the revenge theme. The special effects complement the clever application of Kelly’s ability: for example, when Kelly is run down by a car (yes, I did say things escalate), but the motorist is the one whose face shows the impact. That is not the goriest scene, though: some of it is extremely tough to watch, despite the majority of characters being kids, earning the film a well-deserved 18 certificate.
The only thing which particularly let the film down was a somewhat cheesy ending, which didn’t fit the dark tone; and the way that serious tone sometimes gets in the way of what could be a pretty exciting story. I guess you can’t necessarily have both: The Unhealer works, for the most part, but it might not work for everyone. I hope the UK premiere, at Grimmfest, October 2020 is a success.