I’ve been thirsty for some good Catholic horror lately. With prestige horror like Midsommar and everything Jordan Peele has been doing over the past few years it seems like no one is interested in seeing a good old statue of Jesus weep blood anymore.
I think it’s only a matter of time until Catholic horror comes back into fashion, but until then, The Unholy is going to have to tide me and my fellow lapsed Catholics over. This movie follows Gerry Fenn (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), a journalist disgraced by his history of fabricating evidence, who stumbles across an unbelievably lucky exclusive: a deaf-mute girl named Alice (Cricket Brown) whose hearing and speech suddenly comes back after she claims she’s been visited by the Virgin Mary. Soon Alice is performing miracles, healing the sick, and turning her small New England town into a new pilgrimage site with the help of Fenn’s marketing skills. Of course, all is Not As It Seems. Jumpscares ensue.
Okay, so, before I go on, I should say that The Unholy is, emphatically, not a good movie. There are ways to make a solid movie that are as objective as we can get with art, and The Unholy fails in almost every regard. I’m going to tell you why, and then I’m going to tell you why I liked it anyway.
Editing might be the most important aspect of horror that no one notices. Even if the cinematography is so-so, horror is such a high-strung genre that you can get away with a lot with just a few well-timed cuts.
Conversely, a few ill-timed cuts can ruin a good thing just as easily. At one point a death happens that is clearly meant to be very impactful and frightening, but the editing is so weird that I was unsure whether the character actually died for several minutes until it was clear that he was simply never going to be mentioned again.
More bafflingly, something awful has happened to Katie Aselton in this movie. Her character arrives in the middle of the first act to fulfill the Local Guide archetype and provide a counterpart to Jeffery Dean Morgan’s hot dad energy. I think what happened here is that a crucial scene was cut and either the studio hoped no one would notice or ran out of time to do a proper reshoot. Either way, someone in the chain of command didn’t care to do their job properly. So now when Katie Aselton arrives, the vibe is that we’re meant to understand she and Fenn have met before, because she is very angry with him for some reason, but we the audience have never seen her before in our life. What the hell happened here.
The CG work is middling. The jumpscares are ineffective. The rules of what the monster is capable of are never explained, and regularly contradicted. The monster design is good, but disguised until the final act. The plot is derivative (I can’t think of anything with lower stakes than library research, why do we always have to watch people do library research?).
BUT. Something very interesting is going on in this movie. Fellow Catholics will know that messing around with the image of Mother Mary is simply not done. It’s like unflatteringly portraying Jesus himself. My conjecture is that most horror filmmakers don’t want to alienate their Catholic viewership, so the figureheads of the Catholic faith are typically just absent in Catholic horror; any appropriation of Catholic iconography for evil is both obvious and unsuccessful (think The Nun or American Horror Story), allowing you to think that maybe the forces of good just went out to lunch and if they had been here everything would be fine. Or, even better, that the average human is divinely capable of recognizing evil wherever it appears.
The Unholy startlingly implies that evil can just as easily work within faith itself, with the Church’s explicit approval. Fame and the virality of impressive imagery is a big part of this movie, and as Alice’s reach grows, she becomes more of a cult leader than a religious figurehead, insisting that to doubt her word is to damn your own soul by extension.
Horror loves Catholicism for its age and its metal-as-hell aesthetics, but The Unholy is the first movie I’ve seen in a long time that actually uses Catholicism as an active part of the plot. It offers an indictment of unconditional faith, and has the courage to explicitly state that doubt is healthy, even for believers. Considering how easily and often faith turns into fanaticism, this is a much more timely and interesting horror story to tell than “Satan bad.”
I just wish I knew where Katie Aselton’s character came from. And whether that one guy actually died or not.
6/10. 4 for a kickass theme, 2 for Jeffrey Dean Morgan, who is doing his best, bless him. Minus 4 points for making everything good about this movie almost unwatchable.