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The Unholy (2021) review

By David Dent

Cinematic adaptations of the works of the late UK horror writer James Herbert are few and far between, so it was somewhat of a surprise to see his 1983 novel ‘Shrine’ included in the credits as the basis for Evan Spiliotopoulos’ accomplished and scary debut feature as director.

Fiftysomething Gerry Fenn (the ever-reliable Jeffrey Dean Morgan) is a washed-up journalist, his career finished after being exposed as a perpetrator of fake supernatural phenomena; he’s now reduced to pitching stories of local colour to small town newspapers. Sniffing out a lead, he heads to an area outside Boston, but what he thinks is going to be a dead end turns into something more interesting; he encounters a young woman, Alice (Cricket Brown in her first feature lead role), formerly unable to speak but, via a religious epiphany and a vision of the Virgin Mary, begins to talk and develops the ability to work miracles.

The movie concentrates on the impact of these events, as the small town becomes a pilgrimage point and the previously excluded Fenn now becomes a hot journalistic ticket. But behind Alice’s beatific smiles and the messages of hope via Mary lies a much darker truth which threatens the lives of the townfolk.

While Spiliotopoulos is quite happy to slather much of his film with fright flick standby jump shots – many of which, to be fair, are very effective – and rehearse horror movie 101 moves in the final act, it’s the other elements of the film that raise the interest levels. While young Alice is pivotal to the story, this is really about Fenn’s fallibilities – he kick starts the chaos in the quest for another cheap story – and his gradual understanding that he, and he alone, is to blame for the horror around him makes him a very plausible central character. As usual with adaptations of novels, there are some narrative avenues opened but left unexplored, but the authentic small town feel of the film, and the growing sense of dread, more than make up for any plot inconsistencies.

‘The Unholy’ is a strongly recommended horror thriller, and the last thing you would expect from the writer of 2017’s ‘Beauty and the Beast.’

The Unholy is out now in UK cinemas.

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