Religious horror ranges from classic (1973’s The Exorcist) to appallingly bad (2018’s The Nun), a subgenre full of bargain-bin exorcism movie cash-grabs and lazy attempts. The Unholy (formerly titled Shrine) certainly has minor flaws, and is occasionally hampered by its PG-13 rating. Still, it delivers a healthy serving of thrills and chills, with a horrifying villain in Mary / The Dark Entity. The film feels like Sinister mixed with elements of J-horror, and the religious angle makes it indescribably creepy.
Our Ethan Hawke stand-in is The Walking Dead mainstay, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, playing questionable investigative journalist Gerry Fenn. Gerry heads to a small New England town to follow a story about vandalized cows, but when he nearly runs down a mysterious girl in the road, Gerry stumbles upon something more. The girl, Alice (Cricket Brown), is hearing-impaired, and after Gerry follows her to the base of a strange tree, she can miraculously speak again. Claiming she’s been visited by the Virgin Mary, people flock to see Alice and the newly christened holy shrine. It seems new powers allow her to heal the sick. Gerry takes full advantage of the situation, desperate to revive his crumbling career. Before long, Gerry starts to question whether these miracles are truly divine or if something more sinister is afoot.
I really enjoyed The Unholy—it’s pretty scary, and the satanic elements are unique, giving it an edge. The story is different, original and interesting, straying from typical conventions we’ve grown to expect from this type of material. Mystery elements peppered in the script make you hang onto every word that comes out of Alice’s mouth. Writer/director Evan Spiliotopoulos builds well to the most unnerving moments. Crumbling giant statues of the Virgin Mary, bleeding tears, burning trees, and ancient kern babies are just a few of the strong visuals, building a taut atmosphere throughout that constantly keeps the viewer at attention.
Jeffrey Dean Morgan is very likable as Gerry, with the platonic relationship between him and Cricket Brown’s Alice being vital to his character arc. Brown imbues Alice with a purity and naivety reflective of the character’s holy status. The supporting cast is just as good, with Cary Elwes, as the vile Bishop Gyles, and William Sadler’s concerned Father Hagan standing as my two favorites.
If I had a few small complaints, I wish the ending was much darker. The kills are bloodless and could’ve been punched up significantly. This is where the flaws end—The Unholy is a religious horror film that somehow feels original and fresh. I didn’t know holy shrines even existed before this movie. The final act builds to an intense crescendo of violence and lunacy that stands as one of the most satisfying suspense sequences I’ve seen in 2021 thus far. Screen Gems and Ghost House Pictures bring The Unholy to theaters everywhere on Friday, April 2nd.