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

P.S. I Love You (2007)

If you read a plot synopsis for the 2007 chick-flick oddity P.S. I Love You without any other context, you’d likely mistake the film for a heart-wrenching melodrama, a romantic weepie. This a movie in which a careerless New Yorker (Hillary Swank) loses her young, brash husband (Gerard Butler) to a brain tumor before the opening credits. As a final grand romantic gesture, the husband had arranged for a series of posthumous letters to be delivered to his wife from beyond the grave, each prompting her to move on with her life instead of dwelling on the past. The obvious, default tone for this narrative would be Sirkian sentimentality & heightened emotional catharsis. What makes the movie fascinatingly perverse is that it isn’t a drama at all, but rather an impossibly dark, morbid comedy that plays its tragic premise for yucks instead of tears. All its surface details convey a commercial, conventional “woman’s picture” about a young widow mending her broken heart. In practice, though, it’s a pitch-black comedy that plays the trauma of losing a romantic partner to brain cancer as an opportunity for some jovial gallows humor.

Not only does P.S. I Love You play like a subversive black comedy despite its conventional surface, it specifically plays like a morbid subversion of the romcom format. The only difference is that in this scenario The Wrong Guy that the lovelorn protagonist must get over so she can better herself happens to be her husband’s ghost. His letters from the afterlife prompt her to revisit memories & locations from their shared past as a proper last goodbye, but they also allow his sprit to re-enter the picture and comfort her as she feels his presence in these old haunts. His letters even push her to find new potential beaus (or at least one-night boytoys) in bit-role hunks Harry Connick Jr. & Jeffrey Dean Morgan (whose naked butt is ogled at length for straight-lady titillation). Like in all romcoms, the best characters are the ones with no stakes who’re only there to lighten the mood, with no real plot-related obligations; in this case it’s Gina Gershon, Lisa Kudrow, and Kathy Bates as Swank’s family & gal-pals, a stellar lineup by any standard. Unlike in most romcoms, though, her personal success in the film is not defined by finding a replacement husband, but rather finding the fine art of Shoes. Also, and I cannot stress this enough, it’s unusual for a joke-heavy romcom to open with the protagonist’s husband dying of a brain tumor.

Besides being shockingly morbid for a romcom (and borderline supernatural), P.S. I Love You is also certifiably drunk. That choice is questionable, given the harmful cliché it propagates about its characters’ Irish & Irish-American communities, but the sea-legs alcoholism of the film does afford it a distinctly human, relatable tone that’s often missing from these mainstream romcoms. Characters drink past blackout, raising their glasses to the dead while slurring along with the most vulgar Pogues songs on the jukebox. When the widow imagines in a flashback that her husband is “the only person in the room,” the number of beer bottles & plastic cups strewn about the empty bar they’re in is astronomical. The film even opens with a drunken late-night fight a la Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. Returning home from a party, Butler & Swank argue vehemently about children, money, careers, romance, and sex in an off-puttingly drunk communication meltdown, then immediately kiss & makeup. That’s our only taste of the husband before his untimely death. It’s like the movie itself is drunk along with its characters, which is why it’s so carefree about making light of brain cancer & young widowhood. It’s a little jarring tonally, but certainly a lot more fun than a straight-faced, sober drama with this same tragic story would be.

I don’t want to oversell P.S. I Love You as a dark subversion of commercial filmmaking. If anything, the perverse pleasures the film has to offer are in how cookie-cutter & familiar its surface details are despite the tragic humor & borderline magical realism of its premise. That means that a lot of the usual romcom shortcomings apply here: characters complaining about having no money despite living in multi-million-dollar Manhattan lofts; shockingly regressive treatment of anyone who’s not straight or white; reinforcement of Patriarchal standards of femme beauty & health, etc. Worse yet, because the film at least somewhat pretends to be a romantic drama it has the gall to stretch on for a full two hours, which is at least 20min longer than any romcom should ever dare. That’s likely because it drunkenly stumbled into functioning as a romcom by mistake. It over-corrected in lightening its pitch-black tone with proper Jokes and subsequently transformed into a bizarrely fascinating object as a result. P.S. I Love You is too long, politically muddled, and hopelessly confused about what kind of movie it wants to be. Still, it’s well worth putting up with those shortcomings just to witness the novelty of a romcom about a woman who must break up with her drunk husband’s ghost so she can find her true love in Shoes.

It’s also worth it for Lisa Kudrow. She’s very funny, no matter how morbid the context.

-Brandon Ledet

Rampage (2018)

Despite the conventional wisdom, I believe the video game adaptation is a strong template for a deliriously fun B-picture. Much like how novellas & short stories often make for better literary adaptations than lengthy novels because they invite filmmakers to expand rather than condense, the video game medium (particularly in vintage examples) tends to only carry vaguely sketched-out lore & world-building that affords filmmakers a lot of freedom to create in extrapolation. In theory, the Rampage arcade game should have been a prime candidate for an entertainingly absurd action movie, since it’s basically a blank-slate, plot-wise. In the game, players assume the avatars of three cartoonish kaiju—a gorilla, a wolf, and a lizard—earning points by destroying buildings & eating helpless citizens one city at a time. There’s no progression to this initial setup, just more buildings & people to populate an eternally resettable scenario. Unlike the better examples of video game adaptations that use these blank-slate launching pads to create absurdly preposterous worlds, the film version of Rampage instead exhausts itself trying to imagine a plot where its resettable videogame scenario could be at least somewhat plausible. The Super Mario Bros., Mortal Kombat, and Resident Evil movies accept the over-the-top absurdism of their source material as a matter-of-fact conceit; Rampage instead goes out of its way to reduce its premise to the most unimaginative action vehicle possible, one it already feels like we’ve seen Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson star in before. A better-realized Rampage adaptation would have just started with the monster attacks destroying a major city and worried about the reasoning behind their origins after the fact (there are literally dozens of Godzilla pictures that teach that lesson). This adaptation instead dulls down its entertainment potential by laboriously working towards that payoff in a too-late third act turnaround.

The Rock stumbles into this picture wearing a khaki-colored composite costume of every single ex-military jungle adventurer character he’s played before. In this particular case, our impossibly handsome, charismatic hero is defined by his relationship with an albino gorilla named George. With a rapport established through sign language and sex jokes, this Buff Zoologist & Brilliant Gorilla supercouple are seemingly best-bros-for-life until a nearby satellite crash infects George (along with a wolf & an alligator) with a “genetic editing” pathogen. Designed by an Evil Corporation for military weapons purposes, this pathogen causes the three beasts in question to grow exponentially larger, more aggressive, and more resistant to harm. Teaming up with a rogue scientist (Naomie Harris) who helped develop the pathogen, The Rock must race to cure George with an antidote before the military strikes him down and to destroy the other two monsters before they destroy Chicago. And because the movie delusionally believes the monsters need a reason to work together to destroy Chicago, there’s also a broadcasted signal attracting them to the Evil Corporation’s headquarters that must be shut off before it’s too late. Beyond the too-few scenes of monsters destroying buildings (and a few villainously hammy performances from what-are-they-doing-here actors Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Jake Lacy, and Joe Manganiello) there’s nothing distinctive about Rampage as a disaster epic, not even its deployment of three separate kaiju. The movie could have made better use of its satellite crash opening by taking its monster fight to outer space or used its inciting pathogen to create Dwayne “The Giant Boulder” Johnson or anything over-the-top enough to suggest that it fully embraces the absurdity of its central conceit. Instead, it almost outright apologizes for being built on a silly video game foundation by exhaustively explaining a scenario where a giant wolf, gorilla, and reptile might team up to destroy a major city as a team, when that should have been its first act starting point—no explanation necessary.

I was left exactly this cold by last year’s giant ape monster movie Kong: Skull Island, which also hosted just enough monster action & hammy performances to call into question how the sum of its parts could possibly be so aggressively bland. Rampage is a total MoviePass decision, an unenthused picture that’s only worth your attention if it has a convenient showtime in a directionless afternoon you’re looking to kill. No amount of helicopter-tackling wolf action or Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s cowboy cop quipping things like, “When science shits the bed, I’m the guy they call to clean the sheets,” can make up for the grey mush that surrounds them. Even the novelty of the glorious creature feature Alligator being blown up kaiju-size is only worth a fleeting smirk. The only moment of pure so-bad-it’s-great bliss at hand is a spectacularly awful Kid Cudi remix of “Bullet with Butterfly Wings” that the film unfortunately buries deep in its end credits, where it’s meant to not be heard. It’s ashamed of that cheese just as much as it’s ashamed of its video game roots. Cut the wolf out the the kaiju trio and there’s no point in passing this movie off as a Rampage adaptation at all; it might as well be San Andreas 2 or Journey 3 or a sequel to any number of The Rock’s disaster epics. The green screen/mocap animation, closely cropped shaky-cam action (which is a really weird choice for a film about giant monsters), and cornball stepdad humor are entirely indistinct & interchangeable within the context of the modern Rockbuster. It’s a total shame, because the gleefully trashy arcade game the film chose as a starting point should have been an easy layup in delivering something fun & memorably absurd. Instead, five no-name screenwriters ground it down into a shapeless, unremarkable orb carried on the back of a bored-looking Rock.

-Brandon Ledet