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Cricket Brown in Screen Gems' The Unholy.Dana Starbard/Sony Pictures

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  • The Unholy
  • Directed by Evan Spiliotopoulos
  • Written by Evan Spiliotopoulos, based on the novel by James Herbert
  • Starring Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Cricket Brown and William Sadler
  • Classification PG; 98 minutes

Most Easter weekends at the movies are come-to-Jesus moments: opportunities for Hollywood to pander to their evangelical flock with faith-based titles that preach to the choir. Which makes this week’s new release The Unholy a curious, if ultimately logical, flip on tradition. Instead of celebrating Christ, here is a movie that revels in the sinister. But don’t worry – righteousness will still overcome evil, and all repentant sinners shall be redeemed. I can’t say that arc will apply to The Unholy’s filmmakers, though.

Adapting James Herbert’s 1983 novel Shrine, filmmaker Evan Spiliotopoulos turns a potentially compelling examination of faith and mass hysteria into a by-the-numbers jump-scare effort.

The film opens on disgraced journalist Gerry (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), an alcoholic looking for one big story to bring him back to the media big leagues (dude, just start a Substack newsletter). While poking around a small New England apparently littered with creepy wooden dolls (warning sign No. 1), Gerry finds a barn-burner in the tale of Alice (Cricket Brown), a young deaf woman who claims that a visit from the Virgin Mary healed her hearing problems – and everyone else’s, too.

As word spreads about Alice’s powers, Gerry teams up with the woman’s kindly priest uncle (William Sadler) and a bishop with a wildly fluctuating Boston accent (Cary Elwes) to determine whether Alice is a force of good or a pawn of Satan.

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Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Cricket Brown star in The Unholy, which is out just in time for Easter.Dana Starbard/Sony Pictures

If you have seen just one demonic-possession movie, you will know exactly what happens next beat by beat: mysterious deaths, ghostly voices and one big moment of spiritual reckoning. It is not as if The Unholy is poorly-made trash – though its visual effects hint at a lower-than-low budget – it is just that Spiliotopoulos has no genuine interest in Herbert’s complex themes yet all the time in the world for head-spinning genre predictability (but not in that fun Exorcist kind of way).

Eventually, The Unholy reveals itself not to be an entertaining ride to Hell but an earnest sales pitch for the power of Christ. Fair enough. But for Easter 2021, I was hoping for something a little more enjoyably demonic and less been-there-redeemed-that. Let us pray.

The Unholy opens April 2 in Canadian theatres, dependent on local health restrictions.

In the interest of consistency across all critics’ reviews, The Globe has eliminated its star-rating system in film and theatre to align with coverage of music, books, visual arts and dance. Instead, works of excellence will be noted with a Critic’s Pick designation across all coverage.

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