‘The Unholy’ conjures effective scares despite familiar subject matter

Jeffrey Dean Morgan in The Unholy / Screen Gems

With Easter barely in the rearview mirror, something unholy has slipped into movie theaters, and at least for the moment I’m not thinking about the coronavirus.

“The Unholy” is the latest horror movie that attempts to scare the devil out of you, and if you are willing to go along, the film is a splendid bit of moviemaking that caught me by surprise with just how effectively it delivers on the supernatural promise of the trailer.

Director and screenwriter Evan Spillotopoulos doesn’t offer anything particularly new in his adaptation of James Herbert’s 1982 novel “The Shrine,” but his craft and care with the subject matter is impeccable. The movie has its requisite quota of jump scares, created with jarring sound and quick cuts, but he also offers a compelling story and well-drawn characters that we’re able to latch onto as an audience.

Spillotopoulos also is working with a star-in-the-making in Cricket Brown who plays the hearing-impaired Alice, who begins to work supernatural miracles in the name of what most of the townspeople assume is the Virgin Mary. All of sudden, Alice can not only hear and speak, but she’s also healing the sick.

Her miracles not only catch the attention of tabloid journalist Gerry Feen (Jeffery Dean Morgan) but also church leaders Father Hagan (William Sadler), Monsignor Delgarde (Diogo Morgado), and Bishop Gyles (Cary Elwes), who are all are a bit frightened and yet intrigued by what Alice’s extraordinary abilities might mean.

While everyone wants to believe her powers are holy, they are, of course as the title of the film tells us, anything but.

Poor Alice has been vexed not by Mary, the mother of Christ, but by 19th-century witch Mary Elenor who channeled the Devil to perform miracles. In 1845, Mary Elenor had a mask nailed onto her face, was hung from a tree, and burned alive. However, her spirit has returned to possess young Alice, who believes her visions and abilities come from the Lord instead of their actually sinister source.

Again there’s nothing really new in the movie. Once “The Exorcist” debuted on the big screen in 1973, the book really could have been closed on this genre of film for most.

However, “The Unholy” is a movie made for folks who enjoy horror. It’s a solid example of the genre, just not a movie that transcends it. Spillotopoulos’ direction keeps the film focused and on target. He’s aided and abetted by a strong cast who melt into their characters in a way that allows the audience to buy in.

“The Unholy” is an effective piece of horror film work that will offer you some thrills and chills if you give it half a chance.

(PG-13) 1 hr. 40 min.
Grade: B

New in Theaters

  • Voyagers (watch trailer) / (PG-13) 1 hr. 48 min / AMC Fiesta Square, Malco Razorback, Malco Towne
  • The Unholy (watch trailer) / (PG-13) 1 hr. 40 min. / AMC Fiesta Square, Malco Razorback, Malco Rogers Towne

Classic Corner – Hud

Paul Newman and Brandon De Wilde in Hud / Paramount Pictures

Paul Newman made his career off playing heroes with feet of clay, but his role as “Hud” in the 1963 Western drama is anything but heroic. Newman put the anti in this classic anti-hero role with a capital “A.”

The film is based on the 1961 Larry McMurtry novel “Horseman, Pass By,” but the story was reworked by to put the villain, Hud Bannon, at the center of the story, and Newman sizzles in the role, supported by an outstanding cast including Patricia Neal, who won a Best Actress Oscar for her role as Alma Brown, and Melvyn Douglas, who won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his role as Homer Bannon, Hud’s father. In all the film was nominated for seven Oscars and won three in 1964.

Newman excels in the role of the despicable yet charismatic Hud who seeks all the shortcuts in life, much to the chagrin of his of his long-suffering father Homer. Brandon deWilde, who played the boy in “Shane,” is Lonnie, Hud’s nephew, who is torn between his love for his grandfather and his admiration for his tough-guy uncle.

Neal plays Alma, the Bannon’s housekeeper, whom Hud and Lonnie are both attracted to. She resists her infatuation with Hud because she knows that he’s no good for her from relationships with men just like him in the past.

The Bannon’s are cattle ranchers caught in a quandary of what to do when their herd is infected by foot-and-mouth disease. Despite the traumatic effect it will have on the ranch, Homer wants to do what is right. However, Hud suggests a quick sale of the cattle before the inevitable.

At odds with his father, Hud attempts to have have Homer declared incompetent so he can take over the ranch. After an argument between the two, a drunken Hud makes advances on Alma and after being rebuffed, he attempts to rape her until Lonnie intervenes.

The family turmoil comes to a head when Homer is killed in a riding accident. Disgusted by Hud’s treatment of Homer and Alma, Lonnie leaves his uncle to the ranch and his own devices. The film ends with a fade-out shot of the window-shade pull-ring swaying at the lonely ranch house.

Newman’s character is a damaged, despicable man, full of self-loathing that drives everyone who loves him away. The film’s subject matter is an ugly portrait of family-gone-wrong thanks to the selfishness of one man. Not the happiest of subjects, but still a fine movie, expertly directed by Martin Ritt, filled with strong performances.

The film plays at 7 p.m. Saturday on Turner Classic Movies.