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  Unholy, The A Blast Of Blasphemy
Year: 2021
Director: Evan Spiliotopoulos
Stars: Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Cricket Brown, William Sadler, Katie Aselton, Cary Elwes, Diogo Morgado, Bates Wilder, Marina Mazepa, Christine Adams, Dustin Tucker, Gisela Chipe, Danny Corbo, Sonny Corbo, Michael Strauss, Madison LaPlante, Doria Bramante
Genre: HorrorBuy from Amazon
Rating:  6 (from 1 vote)
Review: Gerry Fenn (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) is a washed-up reporter reduced to writing low-paid stories on cattle mutilations for tabloids, and when he gets to the town of Banfield to investigate the latest, he is unimpressed to see this case is merely a logo of the metal band Metallica on the backside of the cow in question. But as he wearily chats with the farmer, a local priest, Father Hagan (William Sadler) walks over and orders them away, which is when Fenn notices something sparkling in the roots of a nearby tree right in the middle of the field. He goes over to have a look, and finds a doll filled with ashes - if only he knew he had stumbled upon the biggest story of his career.

Produced by Sam Raimi, The Unholy was drawn from the book Shrine by bestselling British horror author James Herbert, but as the Brits did not get the rights to many of Herbert's books for whatever reason, the novel's hauntological setting of rural England had been updated to the America of social media and The Conjuring franchise. Herbert was well known for littering his paperbacks with gruesome detail and schoolboy-titillating sex scenes, but Shrine was one of his more restrained efforts, aiming to creep the reader out with religious bastardry rather than gross them out with scenes of gore and outright unpleasantness, though he could not resist that material entirely.

The results were one of his better books, certainly one of his better written ones, and his knack with concocting a pageturning yarn was much in evidence, as there was nothing wrong with his basic plot, where he did not play his hand too soon. Unlike this movie version, which added a prologue where a witch was burned at the stake after getting a metal mask hammered to her face, which we see from her point of view, but nonetheless was a very blatant rip-off (or homage) to Mario Bava's attention-grabbing opener to Black Sunday back in 1960. Adapter and director Evan Spiliotopoulos resorted to Herbert after that, streamlining one of his longer books but refining his most subversive theme.

Therefore anyone looking for the setpiece fiery disaster halfway through the book would be disappointed, presumably left out because it would be too expensive to stage, and also because they already had one for the grand finale. Fenn was older here, a borderline alcoholic instead of the fresh-faced but cynical local newspaper reporter on the page, and the sex scenes had been removed; also Alice, who sees the visions and heals the sick, was a young adult rather than a little girl. Yet in this age of turning that pair of not very nice charlatans Ed and Lorraine Warren into horror movie heroes, it was refreshing that Herbert's point of God and Satan employing much the same methods of snaring the faithful with miracles was intact, a far more pertinent matter than the binary good vs evil of The Conjuring series.

Indeed, even by the end we cannot be sure which of the supernatural effects were the provenance of God or The Devil, and that ambiguity, musing that it would really be impossible to tell if miracles really did occur, lifted what was otherwise a rather basic twenty-twenties chiller. Yes, it was toned down from the source for a PG-13 rating, and the CGI was clearly earthbound rather than the stylings of something out of this world, jumpscares and all, but the nugget of unexpected philosophical - some might say theological - musing you would not expect from that pulp author was welcome. Cricket Brown was Alice, whose deafness is cured by the apparent Virgin Mary, and made for an engaging if limited dynamic with Morgan, though the potential love interest Katie Aselton did not even get that token role to fulfil, but while at its heart it was corporate studio product, enough of Herbert's rebellious spirit survived to render it preferable to much of its quasi-religious, would-be pious ilk. The Biblical quote in the end credits was well-noted. Music by Joseph Bishara.

[Available to Download & Keep, Rent on Digital and on Blu-Ray & DVD on August 2 2021.]
Reviewer: Graeme Clark

 

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