[Screen It]


(2021) (Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Cricket Brown) (PG-13)

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Horror: A washed-up journalist thinks he's found the story of the century in a small town where religious miracles appear to be happening but evil lurks just around the corner.

Gerry Fenn (JEFFREY DEAN MORGAN) is a once-prominent journalist whose career derailed after it was discovered he fabricated some of his stories. He now works as a cheap freelancer and has arrived in the town of Banfield, Massachusetts following the lead about "unholy orgies'' with cattle.

When he learns there's nothing there, but discovers an old corn dolly in the hollowed-out section of an old tree, he decides to break that and use it as part of another made-up story. But he drops that when he nearly drives over 18-year-old Alice (CRICKET BROWN) who's out in the middle of the road in a trance. After crashing his car to avoid her, he follows Alice to that same tree where he hears her speak to an invisible entity before collapsing unconscious.

Both her uncle/guardian, Father Hagan (WILLIAM SADLER), and Dr. Natalie Gates (KATIE ASELTON) don't believe Gerry's story as Alice has never spoken a word in her life. Thus, they're shocked when they later hear that for themselves, with Alice stating she was visited by Mary who healed her, something that then also happens to a young boy with muscular dystrophy who can suddenly walk after an encounter with Alice. That not only draws the attention of everyday faithful folks in the area, but also Bishop Gyles (CARY ELWES) and Monsignor Delgarde (DIOGO MORGADO), the latter an inquisitor from the Vatican who's arrived to rule out any other explanations before deeming such events as miracles.

While that draws worldwide attention, Gerry begins experiencing odd events that eventually have him digging deeper into the town's past. All of which leads him to believe the cautionary words from the likes of Father Hagan and Monsignor Delgarde in that wherever God shows up, Satan isn't far behind. That causes him to be concerned about Alice's safety and that of those who've now flocked to the town in hopes of experiencing their own miracles.

OUR TAKE: 4 out of 10

As long as gullible and desperate folks exist, there will be people more than willing to take advantage of them. Growing up, I remember seeing Ernest Angley on TV "healing" those afflicted with any number of maladies. Considering his type and especially after his true self has come to light, it wouldn't surprise me if most everyone I saw on those broadcasts -- from those supposedly being healed to family members and non-related spectators in the crowd -- was in on the con to help viewers at home part ways with their hard-earned dollars.

Granted, con artists peddling miracles were around long before they realized TV (and now the Internet) were great conduits for wealth accumulation, with many operating under the guise of having a direct connection to God, Jesus, or any other deity. Of course, most victims don't stop to question why God wouldn't just dole out miracles to everyone in need (after all, millions of people pray every day for them) rather than cherry-picking certain times and places, especially TV broadcasts.

If anything, ol' Beelzebub would be the more likely figure behind the scenes, and that's the idea behind the latest horror film, "The Unholy." Ruining any sort of suspense or surprise revelation by using an unnecessary prologue scene -- set in 1845 and featuring something horrendous happening to a young woman -- the film is set in the present day.

It's there and then that we meet a disgraced and former high-flying journalist, Gerry (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), who's arrived in a small Massachusetts town chasing a story. As seems likely a repeating occurrence for him, that turns out to be nothing, even after purposefully trying to create one by stomping down on a corn dolly he discovered in the hollowed-out base of the tree where that earlier bad event went down. For anyone who's seen any sort of horror film, we know that's not going to turn out well.

But the story -- by writer/director Evan Spiliotopoulos -- takes a while to get there. After nearly running over a teen, Alice (Cricket Brown), who he encounters in the middle of the road at night in the woods and seemingly in a trance, Gerry finds his hook. And that's an apparent miracle in that the girl, upon kneeling in front of that same tree, can now speak and hear, something she hasn't done before according to her uncle/guardian, Father Hagan (William Sadler) and the local doctor, Natalie Gates (Katie Aselton).

When Alice then heals a boy suffering from muscular dystrophy while working as a conduit for a spirit she states is named Mary, everyone jumps to the conclusion that it's the virgin one and then show up wanting their piece of the miracle pie (or simply be a witness to that to reaffirm their faith).

Also arriving on a more official front is Bishop Gyles (Cary Elwes) and Monsignor Delgarde (Diogo Morgado) direct from the Vatican with orders to try to first disprove then confirm the miracles if they pass the usual litmus test. Gerry and the rest eventually figure out that Mary isn't "that" Mary and thus try to save everyone from eternal damnation.

I suppose there's some potential among all of that, but Spiliotopoulos' script (based on James Herbert's 1983 novel "Shrine") and especially his direction (that often feels like the work of someone aping what they've seen in other similar offerings) don't do the scenario any favors.

The physical manifestation of the evil spirit is of the now far overused creaky figure that often crawls along the floor like some sort of crab, while the scares are of the usual, cheap jump scene variety and are far too predictable. Worse yet, we don't really care about any of the characters, so there's no emotional investment in them or the outcome of the story.

I don't know if skipping the prologue would have helped save the day, but at least it would have made things a bit more interesting for anyone coming to the movie cold with no idea about the story or genre. As it stands, we've seen all of this before and done better.

All of which means the cinematic gods opted not to bestow a miracle on the film and rid it of its various cinematic maladies that prevent it from being as scary, spooky, or even unnerving as it might have been. And I doubt there will be many gullible or desperate enough viewers to believe otherwise. "The Unholy" rates as a 4 out of 10.

Reviewed March 31, 2021 / Posted April 2, 2021

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