The Unholy review – challenging The Conjuring, badly

By Louie Fecou
Published: May 31, 2021
The Unholy review - challenging The Conjuring, badly


CGI ghosts, every religious trope in the horror bible, and uninspired direction can’t help but leave those finally returning to the cinemas deeply disappointed.

This review of The Unholy is spoiler-free.

Returning to the cinema this week was exciting. It had been months since I sat in a darkened room, along with a group of strangers hopefully as excited to be there as I was. What a shame the first thing I got to see was The Unholy.

This supernatural horror film follows the story of a deaf and mute girl who has a vision of the Virgin Mary, and can suddenly heal the sick, as well as being able to hear and speak. The events are set in motion by Jeffrey Dean Morgan, a disgraced journalist who freelances now for any old rag that will print his stories, who arrives in the town of Banfield to cover cow mutilations. He stumbles across a doll buried in a field and upon smashing it to make for a better story, unwittingly unleashes the spirit of a witch that is using faith to bring herself back to steal the souls of the townsfolk and wreak revenge, or something.

There are themes touched upon here, along the lines of blind faith and false Gods, but there is, unfortunately, no attempt to be subtle or layered, as the whole thing degenerates into jump scares and cliché.

Our ghostly witch uses poor Alice as her vessel, and Alice embarks on helping ailing townsfolk, performing miracles, and becoming the best press agent ever for The Virgin Mary. Disgraced journo Gerry Fenn is suddenly flavor of the month, as Alice will only speak to him, giving him the scoop of the year, and re-launching his career. However, it doesn’t take long before the real motivations of the miracles and visions are revealed, and as Alice begins planning a village meeting that will seal the fate of the townsfolk, Fenn seems to be the only person who can stop the evil plan.

With such rich themes, The Unholy is based on the James Herbert book Shrine. There was a chance here to present a horror film that could have tapped into religion, faith, and worship, in a similar way that The Exorcist and The Omen did, however, the ham-fisted direction, ridiculous script, and reliance on cheap scares, reduces this film to pure schlock, and there is just nothing new here to enjoy or engage with.

Had the producers — shame on you Sam Raimi! — toned down the CGI ghost monsters and focussed on the characters and how they are reacting to the strange events transpiring, then this film could have had a chance at being something special.

The miracles from Alice could have been put down to placebos, the backstory of the murdered witch could have just remained a backstory adding to the atmosphere, the media circus could have been a clever satire on fake news and the influence of social media, and Gerry Fenn could have had a redemption arc that would have been genuinely worth investing in, but instead, we get a series of BOO! moments, a predictable and preposterous script, and set pieces that actually make no sense.

By the end of the final scene, you are just begging for this mess to end, and it does, and nobody cares.

Scratch your way back through The Unholy, and it actually plays out like the pilot to a series, We get the origin of Gerry Fenn, his meeting with a new feisty companion, and a generic adventure to kick things off, so it seems obvious to me that they really hope that this would be the start of a franchise akin to The Warrens and their Conjuring universe, but it fails on almost every level. If there is a sequel it would really have to up its game to get me back on board.

Had they only played down the supernatural stuff, focussed on Fenn and his investigation, and left things more open to interpretation, they might have hit on an angle that could have been something special, but CGI ghosts, every religious trope in the horror bible and uninspired direction left me disappointed, and worse than that, stuck with the fact that this was the first cinema release I watched after lockdown. Oh well, there’s always The Devil Made Me Do It to look forward to.

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