Saint Maud is one of my favorite films I’ve seen this year, and I think it’s a damn shame how A24 treated it by hocking it to EPIX, of all streamers, for its tiny release. It represents the best that British horror has to offer, with that shocking little A24 flair that fits it very well into its catalog of horror films. The beauty of that film came in that, while it’s a bit more slow burn than a studio horror film, it actually built up to something strange, horrifying, and, in the last bit of breath the film had left, something truly haunting. This isn’t to say that it’s the end-all-be-all of religious horror by any means, but having something rock so hard makes whatever comes after it have to fill big shoes, and the Sam Raimi-produced The Unholy is our metaphorical sacrificial lamb in this scenario. Regardless of that context, with Raimi behind the scenes, talented actor Jeffrey Dean Morgan headlining the film, and source material from James Herbert’s novel Shrine, I had no reason to doubt the film beyond its similarities to Saint Maud, which I mostly just attribute to poor timing due to COVID.
Whoopsies…I gave this film too much credit.
Disgraced journalist Gerald Fenn (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) travels to a small New England town to cover an ultimately fruitless story of cow mutilation for a trashy occult news site. While trying to stage the scene to make something out of the story, he accidentally destroys an old “Kern Baby” doll found chained to a tree. Later that night, Gerry discovers Alice (Cricket Brown), a devout Catholic, and deaf-mute young woman from the small town praying and speaking at the tree where the doll was destroyed. When the town discovers that the tree has given her visions of Mary, healing her disability and giving her the power to heal other sick people, the world flocks to her as a beacon of God’s word. But as Gerry discovers from covering the story, the forces at hand in Alice’s miracles are of a much more sinister nature.
Frankly put, The Unholy is one of the worst studio horror films I’ve seen in a long time. It’s so flagrantly lazy and clunky in most everything that it presents to the audience that I genuinely felt like I was a victim of time theft on the job watching this (Douglas, you will get my invoice). It offers absolutely nothing new to anyone who has ever seen a single horror film before, and god forbid you actually frequent the genre often, because you will get nothing in return. The scares are almost all based in fakeout jumpscares that lead nowhere, the visual effects are heavy-handed and comically cheap looking, and the screenplay doesn’t make a single lick of sense. It’s almost insulting as a viewer.
I really don’t mean to come for this movie so hard, but in the age of never-ending content and something to always watch, coming across something with such little regard toward creating anything other than a disposable experience is just incredibly tiring. There are wonderful “disposable” films out there that let us disconnect from our reality and live in a highly stylized, fantasy world, but something about The Unholy and its pure disinterest in creating anything even remotely unique, subtle, or scary just makes me wonder what other, more interesting products Raimi could’ve co-signed on and/or Sony could’ve tossed $10 million at.
I’ll give the film two things…Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Cricket Brown aren’t particularly awful in it, given the absolutely alien dialogue they’re forced to deliver like it’s anything a human would ever say. Still, their chemistry together is admirable, and I at least had that to hold onto. However, the rest range from mediocre, to Cary Elwes’s laughably hammy performance as the Irish/Bostonian bishop that investigates the spiritual occurrences. It’s genuinely one of the funniest movie accents I’ve ever heard and it feels like screenwriter Evan Spilotopoulos (also director) went out of his way once he heard it to provide him with perhaps the most amount of hard R’s to pronounce just to fuck with him some. It makes Kenneth Branagh’s performance in Tenet feel ultimately Shakespearian in comparison, and to see it come from such an accomplished actor like Elwes was disheartening, but also still pretty funny since I know he’ll be okay from this film.
Visually, The Unholy transfers fine to Blu-ray, I suppose, but it’s not a very pretty film to begin with. It’s difficult to fully gauge how well a studio has optimized a film for home entertainment when the source material is rough to begin with, but the quieter, more grounded scenes paint a competent, but incredibly bland picture to be taken in. It’s pretty washed out, but not unintentionally so, and its finale does provide a nice fiery, hellish color palette once the film ceases to assault you with PS2-era visual effects.
On the audio front, The Unholy packs a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 audio track that pretty much fulfills the requirements for a modern horror movie. It’s atmospheric, using smaller surround effects to create a more palpable creepiness to the film, and, when said atmosphere grows into an inevitable jump scare that ends up being nothing, the subwoofer kicks into high gear with Joseph Bishara’s (who deserves better than this) score. It’s nothing particularly new when it comes to audio transfers to Blu-ray, but it gets the job done.
Sony provides no special features on this Blu-ray other than a small number of trailers, almost all for films that came out a good while ago. If anything, it puts into perspective how many movies Sony has sold to other streamers during the pandemic.
The Unholy kinda sucks in most every way, and I take no pleasure in typing that. I’d so much rather rave about how it’s an underrated gem that got buried in theatres due to COVID and is worth your time as an effective piece of studio horror that everyone else misunderstood…that’s kind of my whole thing…but I will not in good conscience lie to you, because it’s bad. It certainly has its comically bad moments that almost make it worthy of a Mystery Science Theater 3000 treatment, but, unfortunately, the rest simply sits as a dull, lazy, derivative film that fully feels like the team were asked to make “Saint Maud, but much shittier.” Morgan and Brown are fine in the two lead roles, but they are nowhere near good enough to warrant even the slightest of recommendations for this. Sony’s Blu-ray is fine from an A/V standpoint, but without any special features, this feels like Sony knew what they had on their hands and shoved it out to bury it in a bargain bin as quickly as possible, and I don’t disagree with their logic on that one.
The Unholy home release includes no special features.
Available on digital May 25th, 2021.
Available on Blu-ray and DVD June 22nd, 2021.
For more information head to the official The Unholy website.
Final Score: 1 out of 5.