Producer Sam Raimi helped lure some big names to “The Unholy,” a Catholic “Our Lady’s no ‘lady'” thriller timed to hit theaters for Easter. Biggest and best of all is the lead, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, cast as a cinematic cliche but delivering the goods as the latest take on the jaded, liquor-loving journalist trope, this time a disgraced reporter who specializes in the paranormal who stumbles across “real miracles.”
But the handsomely-mounted movie– writer-director Evan Spiliotopoulos’ adaptation of a 1983 novel — rather lets Morgan down as his character drifts from cynicism to True Believer. The effects are top notch and there are some chills in it. It’s just that the picture loses itself and any momentum it has in “explaining” these wonders and healings as the work of a Mary who isn’t the “Virgin Mary” all involved assume it is.
Morgan plays Jerry Finn, once a star reporter for a major Boston newspaper, now scraping by on scraps from a website, a freelancer who lost his career in a scandal a decade before. He haggles over pay, tops off his take-out coffee from his flask and heads out to cover a rural New England “cattle mutilation.”
The best scenes in the film are Finn’s jokey, eye-rolling reaction to a farmer’s claims about his cattle.
“Got a son? Sixteen, maybe?”
He’s “fifteen, actually.” And you can finish that joke yourself.
But Finn stumbles across something that might replace the story-that-wasn’t, a “kern doll” buried beneath a gnarled, long-dead tree next to the small town’s Catholic church. It’s wrapped in chains, with a nonsense date attached — “Feb. 31, 1845.”
What Finn doesn’t know is that “Unholy” opens with a grisly 1845 priest-sanctioned execution, seen from the victim’s point of view. When Finn smashes the doll, cooks up some supernatural reason for it, gets a photo and mutters “NOW we have a story,” we know he’s got more of a “story” than he bargained for. And almost running over a barefoot local teen, running down the road in her nightgown, doesn’t wise him up, either. At least “blood alcohol level” threats from the town doctor (Katie Aselton) sober him up.
But that girl? Alice (Cricket Brown) has been deaf and mute since birth. Finn hears her talking to the dead tree. Nobody believes him until she starts talking to everybody — the doctor, her uncle, the priest (William Sadler) and then the masses.
“Mary” has a message. “Mary” can heal. “Mary commands you to walk!”
The church has itself a controversy, and quite possibly a genuine miracle on its hands. Next thing you know, the Archbishop (Cary Elwes) is giving the media slide shows about miracles at Lourdes and Fatima, a Jesuit “inquisitor” (Diogo Morgado) is brought in to “disprove” (or prove) the miracles, according to Vatican doctrine, and Finn has “exclusive” access to the now-talkative young lady whom the locals insist “will be bigger than Taylor Swift” once word gets out.
Finn makes damned sure that word does get out.
Morgan is terrific in showing Finn’s cynicism, the “sell your soul for a story” shortcuts he’s willing to take to get back to where he was a decade ago, and his sarcastic take on faith and “miracles.”
“Does EVERYone quote the Bible around here?”
Finn fends off questions about his reputation with aplomb.
“Isn’t there something in the Bible about ‘forgiving the sinner his sins? Kind of a major plot point?”
But the air goes out of this horror balloon when Finn sobers up and the picture turns all serious, trying to “explain” all that’s going on like the worst parts of most horror movies, losing itself in Catholic Church exploitation of the new “shrine” planned for the village of Banfield.
The rising terror of the wraith that is responsible for all this — a VERY good and creepy effect, BTW — doesn’t “rise” at all. The script fritters away frights and suspense as if that isn’t the whole point of it all.
And Finn needs to hang onto that nasty edge. It’s the “Ace in the Hole” that makes such characters a reliable “type” in any movie where faith, hope and naivete have to confront the cold, hard truth.
The converted “believer” is always more dramatically dull than that the cynic who holds out to the bitter end. That’s an edge Morgan should have fought to keep.
MPA Rating: PG-13 for violent content, terror and some strong language
Cast: Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Cricket Brown, Katie Aselton, Diogo Morgado,William Sadler and Cary Elwes
Credits: Scripted and directed by Evan Spiliotopoulos, based on the novel “Shrine” by James Herbert. A Screen Gems release.
Running time: 1:39