Thursday, April 15, 2021

Miracle Movies in Theaters Now: The Unholy

The Unholy
While reading the Easter story a week or so ago, I was struck again about how many Marys there are in the Gospels. Obviously, it's easy to think of Mary, Jesus' mother. There's Mary Magdalene (who was possessed by seven demons, was healed, and followed Jesus). Then there's Mary of Bethany, Lazarus and Martha's sister. She might be the same as Mary of Galilee, but we’re really not sure. There’s also Mary the wife of Clopas. And Mary the mother of James and Joseph. Some combination of these Marys was at the cross and the tomb, but it's really confusing which is which.

Mary confusion is at the heart of The Unholy, a new horror film written and directed by Evan Spilotopoulos and based on the novel Shrine by James Herbert. It tells the story of a deaf and mute orphaned teen named Alice (Cricket Brown) who lives with her uncle, a priest, Father William Hagan (William Sadler). After a supernatural visitation from “Mary,” Alice is able to hear, speak, even sing. The healing is witnessed by a disgraced reporter, Gerry Finn (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), who sees an opportunity to revive his career with the story of a “divine” miracle. The problem is that everyone assumes the Mary that Alice saw was the Mother of God. 

It’s just an old-fashioned case of mistaken identity. Alice was actually healed by Mary Elnor, a woman executed as a witch back in 1845. As one would expect, complications from this mistake ensue.

We first see Father Hagan chasing a cow off the property, “It’s crapping all over.” He and Alice live in the small town of Banfield (the town sign reads, “A Little Bit of God’s Country”). The priest seems to be well known and liked in the town. Finn comes to that small town to investigate a false story about cattle mutilation by aliens (actually a local teen painting graffiti on a cow). Buried under a tree in the field, Finn finds a corn doll possessed the soul of Mary Elnor, and he sets it free. (Just trust me on this one, okay.)

That night, Finn is driving after drinking a bit, and he almost hits a sleepwalking Alice on a country road. Swerving, Finn runs his car into a tree. He gets out of the car and follows Alice to the tree where he found the doll. Alice begins to speak to Mary and then collapses. Finn takes her to her uncle’s, and Father Hagan calls the town doctor, Natalie Gates (Katie Aselton), who thinks Finn is imagining Alice’s healing.

But the next day at Mass, when Alice is in front of a statue of Mary (the one who was Jesus' mother), she stands up, seeming to be in a trance, and walks out of the church. A number of young women follow her, and soon the whole congregation (including Finn, Dr. Gates, and Father Hagan) follows. 

Mary walks to the tree she went to the night before, then turns to the crowd and speaks, “The Lady has an urgent message. She wants all of you to come back tomorrow. Her name is Mary.” All are in awe as the formally mute girl speaks. But Finn films it all and posts the story. Soon crowds come to the church because of this miracle.

Alice is thrilled to be able to hear and speak (part of the miracle, of course, is that she can speak English clearly, in spite of not having heard it her whole life). Finn is excited to have a story. Dr. Gates is thrilled with Alice’s healing, which she believes is a sign from God. Only Father Hagan seems leary. He is concerned about people exploiting Alice. The priest points out to Finn all the times in church history that people have been taken advantage of with signs and wonders. 

The priest says, “For where God built a church, there the devil would also build a chapel.” 

Finn replies, “I never thought I’d hear a priest quote Martin Luther.” (That attribution is correct.)

Alice overrides her uncle's wish that she stay out of the spotlight and instead has a gathering at the tree the next day. A boy with muscular dystrophy rises from his wheelchair and walks, which is live-streamed. More people flock to the small town, including reporters. Alice agrees to a press conference, but only answers questions from Finn.

The Vatican sends a bishop and an inquisitor to Banfield. Bishop Gyles (Cary Elwes) is quite obviously thrilled by the attention the church is receiving from the spectacle. Monsignor Delgrade (Diogo Morgado) has the duty of doing his best to disprove the miracles. The inquisitor has three criteria for testing the miracle: the affliction must be incurable, the healing instantaneous, and it must be complete. Those criteria seem to be met in Alice’s healing as well as the boy in the wheelchair. Another miracle soon follows, when Father Hagan is cured of his emphysema, which Dr. Gates had deemed terminal.

Alice claims Mary has called her to have a great service where, through the internet, the whole world will be called to place their faith in Mary. But as Bishop Gyles helps prepare for that service, Father Hagan, Monsignor Delgrade, and Gerry Finn begin to investigate the sinister truth about “Mary”.

Father Hagan discovers a book in the church that tells of Mary Elnor’s trial as not only a witch, but a bride of Satan who performed miracles in Banfield, similar to the miracles of Alice. Before he can tell anyone about his discovery, someone comes to the church for confession. 

During the confession, Father Hagan realizes he is talking to Mary Elnor. Soon afterward, Finn comes to the church to find the priest hanging from a rope, tied to the rafters. Suicide is presumed.

Bishop Gyles asks Monsignor Delgrade to perform a funeral for the priest, insisting the means of death be covered up since it might spoil the upcoming big event to celebrate Mary. That big event becomes a confrontation between the forces of good and evil with much in the way of CGI effects and pyrotechnics as one has come to expect in even moderately budgeted horror films. (Spoiler… Good wins, but at a cost.)

So how do the little Catholic church of Banfield and the various clergy rate on our Movie Churches scale? The church seems to serve the community well, up until when it opens a Hellmouth and threatens to be the focal point of many descending into eternal damnation. Father Hagan and Monsignor Delgrade are men who pursue truth before fame, riches, or health, and they're quite aware of Jesus’ teaching of Matthew 7:15, “Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves.” (This verse is posted as a title card at the film’s conclusion.)

On the other hand, Bishop Gyles is quite willing to put fame and riches before truth, and before, you know, God. But because of the sacrificial service of the priest and the monsignor, the bishop only knocks one steeple off the film’s rating, resulting in 3 Steeples.

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