The Unholy (2021)

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

Roger Ebert Film School, Lesson 17: Lady Jane (1986)

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Roger Ebert Film School is a recurring feature in which Brandon attempts to watch & review all 200+ movies referenced in the print & film versions of Roger Ebert’s (auto)biography Life Itself.

Where Lady Jane (1986) is referenced in Life Itself: On page 137 of the first edition hardback, Ebert recalls interviewing Helena Bonham Carter when she was 19 & promoting the film. He also recounts drinking at a particular English pub for such a long period of time that he remembers both the day she moved into an apartment upstairs as well as the day she moved out.

What Ebert had to say in his review: Roger never officially reviewed the film, but he does mention it as evidence in his declaration that Helena Bonham Carter is the “Queen of the Period Picture”.

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Lady Jane is a mid-80s British costume drama featuring members of the Royal Shakespeare Company and a babyfaced Helena Bonham Carter. In that simple one line description I believe I’ve told you everything you need to know about its value as an evening’s entertainment & an an artistic endeavor. Lady Jane is near-indistinguishable from a lot of its costume drama genre peers, save for a few before-they-were-stars casting choices, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t pleasant to look at. At 2.5 hours, its lack of stylistic or narrative ambition can wear your patience a little thin, but if you’re a fan of the familiar cinematic territory it inhabits there’s no shame in zoning out & enjoying the film for its beautiful costumes, historically inaccurate romance, horseback riding, and beheadings. Honestly, it’s perfect background filler for Sunday afternoon housecleaning, especially for fans of Helena Bonham Carter’s costume drama work who’d like to get a glimpse of her early stirrings.

Carter stars as Lady Jane Gray, known to history as “The Nine Days Queen” due to her very short reign as an English Monarch at the bequest of her dying boy-king cousin Edward VI. At the height of the Catholic-Protestant tensions in Great Britain, Lady Jane Grey was something of an instigator, pushing for Protestant values in order to “free the people from bigotry & superstition,” namely Catholicism. She was publicly executed for treason as a reward for her efforts, a shameful end as a political martyr for one of the most highly educated women of her time. Somewhere in that short time frame she was married off against her will to an English lord, a man she never loved & barely knew.

Lady Jane Grey’s story had been adapted for the silver screen twice before this Royal Shakespeare Company version, which might help explain how the details of that arranged marriage get a little fuzzy in this take. Carter’s Lady Jane is physically forced, whipped by her mother even, into marrying the rakish lord who offends her bookish sensibilities, but she does end up falling in love with him thanks to his good looks & dry wit of a young Carey Elwes (brought to the screen by a young Carey Elwes). I guess this doomed lovers element of the plot was meant as a sort of movie magic tactic that could up the emotional stakes of its narrative (which, again, ends in a public execution of a teenager), but it also plays as if The Royal Shakespeare Company spaced out & mixed in a little Romeo & Juliet with its historical narrative. I’m not complaining. Who doesn’t little teenage romance mixed in with their spiritually bleak, true life tragedy?

Ebert once called Helena Bonham Carter “The Queen of the Period Picture,” a career-long trend that’s continued all the way to projects as recent as 2013’s Great Expectations, Kenneth Braunaugh’s Cinderella, and last year’s Suffragette. Lady Jane was Carter’s very first top-billed role and she’s a literal baby in this film (a baby with amazing eyebrows), but she’s already a high-functioning actor here, holding her own among some of Britain’s finest stage actors of the time. She’s not the only interesting pre-fame performance either. A pre-Princess Bride Carey Elwes is perfectly charming as her non-historically accurate lover & a pre-Star Trek Patrick Stewart nearly steals the show as her boisterous, warmongering father, a character that feels as if he were lifted directly from an episode of Wishbone. I don’t think this film is especially memorable or worth seeking out unless one of those roles jumps out at you as something you’ve got to see before you die (are they’re a lot of diehard Helena Bonham Carter completists out there?), but like a lot of costume dramas it’s thoroughly pleasant & easy to consume. If it pops up on television I’d suggest you linger a while instead of immediately skipping over it. Otherwise it might not exactly be worth the effort of tracking it down.

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Roger’s Rating: N/A

Brandon’s Rating: (3/5, 60%)

three star

Next Lesson: Call Northside 777 (1948)

-Brandon Ledet