Do you believe in miracles? These days it seems we use the term to ordain far lighter strokes of luck, fate and fortune than people of the past did. Back then it was a miracle if your crops or your children survived the year but now it’s a miracle if the bus comes on time or if your other half remembers your anniversary.
But what is a true miracle and what would you do if you actually witnessed one? The most common miracles attributed to God’s power by believers and con artists alike are those of healing, with people flocking in the thousands to sites like Lourdes in France and Our Lady of Guadalupe Basilica in Mexico City for the chance to be free from their ailments and afflictions.
Interestingly the Catholic Church states for any such cases of miraculous mending to be deemed real “the healing must be spontaneous, complete and permanent.” The great Derren Brown not only demonstrated the tricks of faith healing in his show Miracle but in a two-part special Faith and Fear he caused an atheist to have a massively moving religious experience that pushed her to question her skepticism.
All of this shows that presented with an amazing unexplainable event, coupled with what seems like solid unquestionable proof of God’s hand in the proceedings, any of us could be converted into a believer.
In The Unholy questions of belief and faith are laid out in full when cynical and disgraced reporter Gerry Fenn (Walking Dead and Watchman star Jeffrey Dean Morgan) finds himself in Banfield, Boston without a story. Drawn to a strange old tree and a weird doll, the jaded journo smashes the ancient artifact and concocts a spooky tale around it.
Soon however he spies a far bigger scoop when a young hearing-impaired girl named Alice (Cricket Brown) who has never spoken suddenly proclaims she has been cured by the Virgin Mary who she can now commune with. Proving her divine claims by healing a wheelchair bound boy’s legs the locals and Fenn start to trust in Alice and the holy nature of the spirit who speaks through her.
Soon the New England town becomes caught up in a media circus as the entire world becomes aware of Alice and her powers. More importantly Bishop Gyles (Cary Elwes from Saw) and the Catholic Church dispatches an inquisitor Delgarde (Diogo Morgado) to determine if the happenings in Banfield are in fact true miracles.
Although attracted by the money and acclaim the story will gain him Fenn soon starts to feel for Alice who just wants to perform the Lady’s will and get her message out to as many people as possible. However Fenn is plagued with niggling doubts and horrific dreams of a monstrous figure and when he discovers the town’s dark history involving witch hunts and Satanism he decides he must find out what is really going on whatever the cost.
Adapted from James Herbert’s best-selling book Shrine by Evan Spiliotopoulos, who also takes on direction duties for his first feature film, The Unholy cleverly weaves real life religious events into its narrative to enhance the realism and impact of the story while using the Catholic Church its institutions and practices as a character in the proceedings.
Mentioning miraculous occurrences such as Our Lady of Medjugorje Croatia where in 1981 six teenagers had visions of the Blessed Virgin Mary and the Miracle of Fátima where Portuguese people saw extraordinary unexplainable solar activity, The Unholy attempts to portray the real effects of a spiritual event of this magnitude on the local community and more importantly on the human conduit themselves.
This brings us to the other historical comparison mentioned in the movie to Bernadette Soubirous who was visited by Marian apparitions of the Virgin Mary in 1858 that both enriched and ruined her life, a tragic tale heart wrenchingly brought to the screen in 1943 in The Song of Bernadette.
Like Bernadette and so many other female leads in films from Black Rainbow to Saint Maud, Alice is as much a victim as she is a hero and the burden of her gifts soon outweigh the benefits. Cricket Brown does a fine job portraying this inner turmoil and she is an engaging and likable lead more than capable of selling the sensational story to the audience.
For all its story building and character studies The Unholy is still a horror film at heart and Spiliotopoulos knows his craft, keeping the viewer on edge throughout the film as we like the skeptical Fenn start to see that something far darker may be at play. Perhaps the twist could have been a little less clearly telegraphed from the opening however the terror amps up nicely until a chaotic climax which manages to deliver drama and horror in equal measure.
Unsettling and vastly interesting The Unholy slots alongside other great religious horror films like Stigmata and The Exorcist offering up an entertaining tale of visions and miracles that will have you questioning your own faith by the end.