A hearing-impaired girl is visited by the Virgin Mary and can suddenly hear, speak, and heal the sick. As people flock to witness her miracles, terrifying events unfold. Are they the work of the Virgin Mary or something much more sinister?
Screen Gems is employing a rather inspired, slightly blasphemous approach in distributing Evan Spiliotopoulos’ “The Unholy,” a modest thriller about miracles occurring in a small Massachusetts town. Releasing the film on the holiest of days – Good Friday – the television ads touting the movie seem to dare the viewer to risk eternal damnation by seeing it over the course of the most important weekend on the Catholic calendar. Personally, I think this is a bit severe. While no expert on the holy manners, I would think saying a couple “Hail Mary’s” would cover this minor indiscretion.
And while you could surely find better things to do, surprisingly “The Unholy” isn’t half bad. Though it doesn’t hold a candle to “The Exorcist,” “The Omen” or numerous other faith-based horror films, it proves to be a rather smart, modest shocker that speaks to why people seek out the miraculous in times of unrest and the cost of compromising one’s beliefs in pursuit of personal gain. And while its modest budget fosters a sense of intimacy, the story is undone at times by shoddy special effects that break the spell Spiliotopoulos, for the most part, effectively conjures.
Either through luck or fate, disgraced reporter Gerry Finn (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) stumbles upon a story that could help repair his reputation and resurrect his career. In the tiny town of Banfield, Massachusetts, a young mute woman named Alice (Cricket Brown) is performing miracles. Claiming to see the Virgin Mary in an old tree outside the church she attends, the girl, who can now speak and hear, is doing the unthinkable. She’s healed the lame as well as a man afflicted with emphysema and in response to this, holy statues are weeping blood. Of course, the story goes national but Finn suspects there’s far more going on behind the scenes and sets out to uncover the truth while befriending this modern miracle worker.
Running a bit over 90 minutes, Spiliotopoulos, who also wrote the screenplay, keeps the story moving at a brisk pace, steadily building not only suspense, but a layered narrative throughout. The duplicitous Bishop Gyles (Cary Elwes, employing a distracting New England accent) is eager to declare the site of Alice’s work a shrine in order to bolster the church’s standing, while the Vatican’s envoy Monsignor Delgarde (Diogo Morgado) has been sent to see if Alice is the real deal or a modern-day Amy Semple McPherson. Both characters add a sense of tension, their stories well-thought out and logical, each providing something solid to hold onto once the supernatural shenanigans kick into high gear.
Meanwhile, Morgan proves a bit frustrating. Early on, he approaches his role with an arch sense of humor, creating a roguish character who’s satisfied with living on the edge, eager to explore the unknown. However, about halfway through he seems to lose interest, delivering rote line readings when they should be passionate, sleepwalking through what should be moments of great excitement and terror. Fortunately, Brown brings the passion he lacks, as she makes Alice immediately relatable and sympathetic. Sincerity dictates her approach and she ends up giving a sincere performance that’s far better than this film deserves, elevating it in the process.
If the special effects didn’t look as if they were done by a high school student, “The Unholy” would have cast a convincing spell. However, the milquetoast malevolent spirit and slipshod action scenes prove too distracting to completely suck us in. Still, Spiliotopoulos’ writing and directing is better than expected, so much so I’m eager to see his future offerings.
2 1/2 Stars