The Unholy Review: How NOT To Adapt a James Herbert Book

Dept. of Spooks and Scares


As I sat in the cinema watching The Unholy, a feeling of dread slowly crept over me. Not an unexpected emotion to experience while watching a movie produced by horror maestros Sam Raimi and Rob Tapert, but unfortunately, it wasn’t due to any of the horrors on screen. Instead, it was due to the dawning realisation that there was a great story to be told here, but this definitely wasn’t it.

Only as the credits rolled did I notice that The Unholy was an adaptation of a novel, The Shrine, by famed British horror author James Herbert. In both book and film, reporter Gerry Fenn becomes embroiled in a series of miracles occurring in the small town of Banfield. The miracles center on a deaf girl called Alice who can suddenly hear and speak, after being unable to for years, thanks to the apparently divine intervention of “The Lady.” As Alice and Banfield become more well known as a shrine, like those in Lourdes or Međugorje, and throngs of the faithful start to arrive, Gerry begins to have doubts about the assumed divine provenance of the occurrences.

The Unholy transplants the action from Brighton, England to Massachusetts, USA and recasts Fenn as a disgraced reporter in the shape of Jeffrey Dean Morgan. It also ages Alice up from the 11 year old of the book to the much older Cricket Brown. This adaptation makes some other smart moves like giving Fenn a more personal stake in the events in Banfield, wisely trims the expansive cast of the book, and swaps out the old English lore that forms the backbone of the book for the more appropriate New England history, including “Kern babies,” a superstition I’d never heard of before.

False Idol?

There is a great mystery drama to be made about a series of undeniable miracles that are slowly revealed to be less holy than they first appear, but unfortunately writer/director Evan Spiliotopoulos doesn’t seem interested in pursuing that path. Instead he shows his hand immediately, with the film’s opening flashback removing almost any doubt as to nature of the power behind the miracles. Spiliotopoulos seems to be far more interested in making a scary creature feature in the mould of something like The Conjuring or Insidious.

That’s not to say the “creature” elements are bad. In design, and movement, it is creepy as hell, but far too often relegated to inexplicable jump scares. The film seems unwilling to decide whether its antagonist is a masterful manipulator, skilfully whispering temptations to the faithful and bending them to its will, or a squealing, screaming, gesticulating monster.

It doesn’t help that when it does appear in those jump scares, the movie never bothers to follow up. Surely you might mention having a dream about a howling abomination or seeing it around town, but the film continues after the jump scares as if these moments never happened. Leaving them adrift in the narrative, as if they were shoehorned in to keep the audience paying attention.

The Unholy Path

Horror movies featuring the supernatural have to walk a very fine line. If the antagonist is too powerful or exhibits poorly explained powers that don’t seem to follow any rules, it can lead to an unsatisfying tale where it feels like the heroes have no chance of triumphing over evil. This can work if the despair is the whole point, as in classic horror movies like The Exorcist, The Omen, or Rosemary’s Baby, but more often than not, this can trip up the more modern takes.

The Unholy falls victim to this in what I like to call “The Nun Effect.” In the 2018 Spin off of The Conjuring, the titular spectre is able to throw a character into an already settled grave, with metres of settled earth above them, indistinguishable from the many surrounding ancient graves. This moment transformed the film from an enjoyable horror movie to a (no less enjoyable) roller coaster ride for me. What could the human characters do in the face of such power? That The Nun didn’t do anything on a similar scale for the rest of the movie spoke to how perhaps even the filmmakers realised they had overplayed their hand and broken any verisimilitude of their story.

She Moves In Mysterious Ways

The apparition in The Unholy works in similar, “mysterious” ways. Performing genuine miracles in one moment, killing in another, before being reduced to taunting for much of the film, popping up for a quick jump scare before immediately leaving, stripping it of any real threat.

The final nail in the coffin is the bonkers reversal of a characters fate in the climax that, based upon the story’s own rules, effectively undoes the villain’s defeat?

It’s a pity as there is the guts of a great story here and The Unholy features a great cast to tell it. Solid performances from Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Cricket Brown are backed up by William Sadler, Diogo Morgado, Katie Aselton, and personal fave, Cary Elwes, with an accent (Bostonian? Irish?) almost as terrifying as the apparition.

Despite a killer concept and a great cast, the reliance on jump scares and an inconsistent threat, turns what could have been a modern spin on The Exorcist or The Omen into more of an uninspired monster mash. 

The Unholy is out in Malaysian cinemas on Thursday, April 15.

Irish Film lover lost in Malaysia. Co-host of Malaysia's longest running podcast (movie related or otherwise ) McYapandFries and frequent cryer in movies. Ask me about "The Ice Pirates"

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