THE UNHOLY, US, 2021, Religious horror. Starring Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Cricket Brown, Cary Elwes, William Sadler, Katie Aselton, Diogo Morgado. Directed by Elio Spiliotopoulis. 99 minutes. Rated M (Supernatural themes, violence and coarse language).
The Unholy is a screen adaptation, written and directed by Elio Spiliotopoulis (writer of a wide range of films from Beauty and the Beast to Charlie’s Angels), from the novel by reputable British author, James Herbert, The Shrine, transferring its location from England to Massachusetts (with its memories of the witches of Salem and the burnings).
(There were some pre-release cautions by religious groups, apprehensive about themes, Marian apparitions, the devil; cautions which are not always reliable.)
The film works at several levels for review and reflection.
First, there is the popular religious horror film, in the vein of The Exorcist and the intrusion of the devil. There are some shocks and scares, a couple of jumps out of the seat. There are the elements of witchcraft in the prologue, set in 1845, the burning, the denunciations of a priest, then ghosts and hauntings. This is a world of superstition. There are references to Satanism and pacts with the devil. There are also superstitions and apparitions of the Blessed Virgin Mary, healings, in the context of the contemporary American Catholic Church. The impact of the horror film does not depend on an audience understanding Marian apparitions, which most audiences would not be familiar with. There is plenty of plot, a solid cast, drama (and no worries to a careful audience concerning sex, language, but with some expected violence). But, the intentions of the filmmakers are somewhat deeper.
Second, the film and its plot, the religious focus, can be viewed by with hostile response by an audience which is anti-religion, anti-church. The portrayal of the visionary, the apparitions, Marian devotion and piety will probably confirm scepticism; such piety and activities appearing somewhat ludicrous to the sceptic. There is also the role of the clergy, the authority of the Bishop, the role of the hierarchy including an exorcist. But, there can also be some scepticism about the diabolical and satanic interventions in the world. The behaviour can be dismissed as religious mania, a world of the irrational which can be criticised and/or mocked. But these are not the intentions of the filmmakers.
Third, The Unholy can be considered from an informed Catholic perspective. The author, James Herbert, had a British Catholic upbringing and draws on his understanding of the church. So, there is much to be considered in this context of the horror/exorcism genre and its conventions.
The screenwriter has done his homework. There are explicit references and vivid and visual images of the apparition at Lourdes, at Fatima, at Medjugorje. There is also reference to the work of Pope Benedict XIV in the 18th century Enlightenment era and his regulations for the requirements and acknowledgement of miracles: something incurable, instantaneous cure, lasting. So, the film has a Catholic atmosphere, and a Catholic adviser is mentioned in the final credits (though, the scenes of the ritual of the Mass are not too accurate).
So, this is a drama of the conflict between good and evil, using religious language, and some graphic imagery of Satan, deriving from the art of the Middle Ages. One of the characters remarks that when God builds a church, Satan builds a chapel next door (attributed to Martin Luther).
The film goes back to the burning of witches in the 19th century, the use of dolls as retainers of superstition, the finding of such a doll at the site where the audience knows a witch was burnt. However, the attention is given to the young 18-year-old deaf-mute girl, Alice (Brown), living in the priest’s house with her uncle, the parish priest. She is devoted to Mary and surprises those who see her hasten to the tree, able to speak, say that Mary, The Lady, has appeared to her, giving her messages, encouraging people to faith. And, what happens, of course, is that crowds come, that Alice is able to heal, that she enthuses the crowd with her devotion.
In fact, the central character of the film is a sceptical journalist, played by Jeffery Dean Morgan, who has fabricated stories in the past and lost his reputation. He is a witness to what is going on, gets an agreement that he alone will be the mediator between Alice and the media. In the 21st-century, the apparitions certainly get media and social media attention.
The parish priest is supportive of his niece. The Bishop is consulted and brings in an exorcist Monsignor Delgarde (Morgado) whose task is to disprove the reality of the miracles. However, the Bishop, more than a touch smarmy, gets caught up in the atmosphere, building a shrine and encouraging people to come.
A religious and Catholic sensibility will soon realise that the whole focus is on Mary, with plenty of images and statues of Mary and other saints, but minimally of Jesus, minimal reference to God. It is all Mary-focused, that the faithful should have faith in Mary, with many scenes of dedication to her, including the Bishop. The screenplay is critical of an obsessive piety and devotion to Mary which does not lead, as the dictum says, to Jesus through Mary. There is no focus on faith in God as God.
So, the film is one about faith, misguided faith in sincerely devoted people, emotional faith that is not God-centred. And, there is a dramatic conclusion, some fiery purging, but also the possibility of the truth and peace.
The Unholy is probably not going to get this kind of attention from audiences or reviewers – but, as indicated, it has themes and treatment which are pervasively Catholic.
Released 15 April
Peter Malone MSC is an associate Jesuit Media