I am a man who loves a haunted doll movie, as long as it doesn’t involve acting like the Warrens were anything other than scam artists. You can imagine my disappointment upon the realization that The Unholy, which I thought would center around a possessed toy, turned out to be something different entirely. That disappointment was tempered by the realization that, although I wouldn’t see an ancient doll wielding a knife against Papa Winchester, at least this would be a possession horror, which is another genre that I’m rather fond of. It’s pretty rote and paint-by-numbers, unfortunately, but the ending was sufficiently unconventional that I can’t say it’s the worst of its kind. Spoiler alert, I guess?
Following a prologue set in 1845, in which a woman is hanged for practicing witchcraft and her soul bound to a doll, we find disgraced journalist Gerald Finn (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) travelling to rural Massachusetts to photograph a supposed cattle mutilation. Disappointed but not surprised to find nothing more than a teen prank on a farm adjacent to a church, Finn notices the gnarled tree from the prologue and, within its hollowed base, the “kern” doll. Seizing the opportunity to spruce up his underwhelming story, he breaks the doll’s china head and takes its photo, unwittingly releasing the spirit of the witch. While intoxicated later that night, he’s driven off of the road by the appearance of a local girl, Alice (Cricket Brown), in front of his vehicle. He tails her back to the tree, where she speaks in tongues and collapses. When relaying this to the girl’s uncle, Father William Hagan (William Sadler), both he and Dr. Natalie Gates (Katie Aselton) express surprise; Alice has been both deaf and mute since birth. Soon, however, Alice demonstrates that she can not only speak but has gained the ability to hear, and says that “Mary” is speaking to her, and has healed her.
This attracts the attention of the local diocese, including Bishop Gyles (Cary Elwes) and Monsignor Delgarde (Diogo Morgado). Before long, Alice garners national and international attention, as she heals a boy who could not walk as well as Father Hagan’s terminal lung cancer, and the small town of Banfield becomes an epicenter of pilgrimages. Also rehabilitated is Finn’s journalistic career, as he’s soon fielding calls from his former editor Monica Slade (Christine Adams), who mere days before was dodging his calls while citing Finn’s previous career-ending lapse of journalistic integrity. When Father Hagan discovers the truth about the “Mary” with whom Alice is communing, and that she is in fact the spirit of the executed nineteenth century witch Mary Elnor, this revelation costs him his life, but puts Finn and Dr. Gates on the right track to stop Mary’s ascension on the night of the Feast of the Immaculate Conception.
There’s a fair amount of water-treading going on in this 99 minute budget horror, which could easily have been trimmed to a tight 80 and gone straight to streaming, perhaps as a surprisingly star-studded episode of Into the Dark or some other horror anthology. First time director Evan Spiliotopoulos has been working in the industry for over two decades now, with some noteworthy (if not praiseworthy) writing credits under his belt: the live action Beauty and the Beast, for instance, as well as The Huntsman: Winter’s War and the 2007 CGI animated Battle for Terra, which I don’t think anyone has ever heard of except for those of us who’ve seen the unskippable trailer on every single Wolverine and the X-Men DVD more times than are reasonable to admit. One wouldn’t think that the man who penned Tinker Bell and the Lost Treasure, The Little Mermaid: Ariel’s Beginning, and Pooh’s Heffalump Halloween Movie would be up for the reinvention of possession horror, and that assumption would be correct. This is a script full of dialogue that you’ve heard a million times before (Slade: “I know you; you would sell your soul for a story.” Finn: “I’m pretty sure I already did.”) as well as some painfully embarrassing attempts at being hip. For instance, when Finn makes a mix for Alice, he cites Tupac as “old school” but mentions cites Billie Eilish as contemporary youth music in the same breath as The Smashing Pumpkins, as if Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness came out in 2019 and not 1995 (sandwiched directly between Me Against the World and All Eyez on Me). It doesn’t strike me as being intentionally ironic, either, as Morgan is a fine actor and could have easily delivered a wry lack of self-awareness if that had been appropriate.
Of course, that Spiliotopoulos wrote Tinker Bell and the Lost Treasure may actually be important to this movie’s ending. After reviewing various plot synopses of the novel from which the film is adapted online, I can’t determine if this is new to the adaptation or within the book, but Mary’s ultimate defeat isn’t the result of an exorcism. Instead, Finn wields his sullied reputation to sow doubt about Alice’s supposed miracles among the mass of congregants who have made their way to Banfield, preventing Mary from sucking up their souls and sealing her infernal pact. Mary, like Tinkerbell, has the “clap if you believe in fairies” limitation that requires faith in order to fuel her return, and by inverting this, Finn and Gates are able to weaken Mary’s hold over Alice and the populace. Of course, since this is a movie, the demands of the modern viewer require that we still be subjected to a show-stopping climax in which Mary appears in the burned flesh and her worshippers flee before her, but I was still pleasantly surprised by the fact that the narrative, which was theretofore about as canonical as a film of this kind could be, took a bit of a left turn into using skepticism as a weapon. It’s still not great, but if you’re stuck with limited options, there are worse possession retreads to spend some time with.
-Mark “Boomer” Redmond
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