In Religious Thriller ‘The Unholy,’ Jeffrey Dean Morgan Is a Sinner In Strange Territory

Every year around this time, a film comes along that deals with faith, but this year’s biggest Easter weekend offering, “The Unholy,” contains more frights than we are used to seeing in April. Jeffrey Dean Morgan stars as Gerry Fenn, a journalist who stumbles upon a major story in rural Massachusetts, one that is either the biggest miracle to occur in decades, or the biggest scandal.

“The Unholy” begins with a terrifying flashback to 1845, when a 19-year-old woman, accused witch Mary Elnor, is hanged from a tree and burned alive. In present, hungover Boston-based Gerry gets a call about mutilated cows in a small town, Banfield. The story turns out to be bogus, but old habits die hard for the reporter, who was fired from his job at a national paper for fabricating stories, as he messes around with the scene after he finds a creepy doll buried underneath the tree that was, unbeknownst to him, where Mary Elnor was hanged. But the real story begins when he almost runs over Alice (Cricket Brown), the orphaned deaf-mute 18-year-old niece and ward of the local priest, Father Hagen (William Sadler). Afterwards, he witnesses her have what she claims is a vision of the Virgin Mary. She walks away from the experience being cured of her congenital deafness. Even more unbelievable, she is now able to speak without any speech impediment, which is shocking considering that it is believed that she had never heard human speech before.

Gerry decides to stick around town, and a few days later he and several others witness as Alice cures a wheelchair-bound young boy with muscular dystrophy outside of the local church, coaxing him to walk in front of shocked and emotional spectators. Because the boy’s condition was previously deemed incurable, what Alice did is considered a bona fide miracle by the Catholic Church. Gerry is thrilled, or as thrilled as a jaded, alcoholic disgraced journalist can be, not because he’s religious, but because of the opportunity that has dropped on his lap. Since he was there when she had her first vision, Alice trusts Gerry, and he is able to negotiate exclusive access to her. He finds himself dealing with Bishop Gyles (Cary Elwes), who is all to eager for a church under his jurisdiction to be the home of a miracle, as well as Monsignor Delgarde (Diogo Morgado), a priest from the Vatican who has a reputation for being something of a wunderkind for sniffing out false miracles. 

Kate Aselton rounds out the cast as Natalie, the smart and kindly local doctor who treats Alice. She takes a liking to Gerry, to whom she explains her belief that faith and science can coexist. Father Hagen, meanwhile, is the first to feel the threat of something ominous, telling Gerry “When God builds a church, the devil builds a chapel next door,” a quote from Martin Luther (for a lapsed Catholic, Gerry proves to be surprisingly knowledgeable in theology). 

Based on the 1983 novel “Shrine” by James Herbert, “The Unholy” attempts to be many things, including a faith film, an investigative thriller, and a commentary on how the media builds up icons, especially in the digital age. The result is a rather uneven story, although it feels oddly comforting at times. Elwes brings some unintentional comic relief with his over-the-top New England accent, while Gerry, played by a rather likable actor, Morgan, is relatable as the sinner looking for some kind of salvation. But the MVP of the film is Brown, who puts her heart and soul into the role, even delivering a haunting rendition of “Ave Maria” at one point. One wishes there was more focus on Alice, although it makes sense that the story would be told through the eyes of a skeptic who needs to be convinced of an otherworldly force.

The Unholy” releases April 2 in select theaters.