2021’s The Unholy, starring Jeffrey Dean Morgan, is a lackluster horror film. And I’m being generous.
But hey, that’s not to say it didn’t have a solid foundation.
But the final product had messy writing, atrocious acting, and the scares just didn’t work. While it’s based on the novel Shrine by James Herbert, the filmmaker seemed intent on cashing in on the “horror movie characters with disabilities” craze.
As the genre title implies, “disability horror” is a horror flick featuring a character with an impairment. It can be blindness, deafness, paraplegia, or even a mental health issue.
Some examples of these are Don’t Breathe (blind antagonist), A Quiet Place (deaf character with an ASL-using family), and The Bone Collector (tetraplegic main character).
Disabilities make characters (and people) more vulnerable. By extension, they’re more susceptible to evil forces, both material and spiritual.
Think of psychopathic narcissists. Who do they prefer to prey on?
They prey on those that are insecure and unsure of themselves. Psychopaths target those who are cut off from everybody else.
Why? Because they don’t want their control over their victims to be disrupted.
It goes without saying that disabilities have a way of turning normal people into easy targets.
Fortunately, disabilities also have a way of providing unique, educational experiences for viewers.
How do blind people cope with living in a world of darkness? Watch Don’t Breathe. How does a tetraplegic go on about his business? Watch The Bone Collector.
We have an innate fascination for characters representing a different walk of life that we’re not familiar with. (The satisfaction you feel when learning something cool is actually a dopamine rush)
And that’s why it makes NO sense for a movie like The Unholy to disregard a deaf character’s unique identity and experience for something as turgid as a journalist’s lifestyle.
The Mysterious Woman…
Alice, a young Deaf-mute woman, had been cut off from society and raised in a religious household. Her uncle, Father Hagan, leads the local church in Banfield, Massachusetts.
One night, Gerry Fenn, a traveling journalist searching for something better than a half-baked scoop, catches Alice wandering in the dead of night. The voiceless, innocent girl, in an ethereal white gown, appears to be pulled towards a decrepit oak tree in the backwoods of Banfield.
A few hours earlier, Gerry found a creepy doll hidden in the base of the same tree and … well, decided to smash it just because.
The Creepy Doll…
If Gerry knew he was in a horror film, the cardinal sin one can commit is break a creepy-looking doll. You’ve no idea what sort of malevolent force can be lurking in those things! Damn it, Gerry!
And he would later learn of his ghastly mistake with severe consequences.
Nah, his short-sightedness gave us a good movie to pick apart and make fun of. Thanks Gerry.
But if all this doll business seems cliche, that’s because it is.
Anyway, the doll housed the spirit of a witch named Mary Elnor, executed 200 years prior.
The 1800’s Occult…
The opening scene, shot from Mary’s point of view, was actually quite intriguing.
We see her, suspended mid-air with a rope around her neck! And a metal mask nailed and hammered into her face! And then she was set on fire as a priest locked her soul into a doll!
…Why am I recalling all this with glee? I really should talk to someone. Good lord…
So almost 200 years later, Mary is back with a scorching vengeance. This time holding sway over a wide-eyed Deaf child.
Deaf Identity and Culture
What many don’t know is that Alice was probably named after Alice Cogswell, the first Deaf student in the United States.
I’m something of a Deaf history scholar myself, being that I graduated from a deaf school and spent two years at a Deaf university (Gallaudet in Washington D.C.).
Deaf stories and literature often exude strong Invisible Man (by Ellison) vibes. Who can forget the inspiring real-life story of Helen Keller, as documented in The Miracle Worker?
Helen Keller’s Tale of Inspiration
Keller herself described her childhood experiences in Before the Soul Dawn, which is great reading for those who aren’t familiar with Deaf perception.
A young girl, voiceless her whole life, got a chance with the arrival of her Teacher (Anne Sullivan). Now, that’s some powerful, inspiring stuff! We all have moments where we feel like the “deaf” ones or it’s the world that is deaf to us. It’s a theme that transcends genres. This can involve social commentary, politics, and even love.
The key is to persevere! Keep speaking until your voice is heard!
The Unholy‘s Missed Opportunity
The Unholy had the opportunity to weave a tale that could frighten, engage, and inspire. And frankly, it did not capitalize on that, for God knows why.
The film introduces Alice (Cricket Brown) as a random girl wandering in the night and becoming possessed by an evil spirit. We don’t see any of her prior struggles as a Deaf woman here.
When she begins to hear and speak, the transition is so facile and convoluted. It completely glossed over the genuine audiological struggles a deaf person would have just to string sounds together properly.
As depicted, deaf people are unfortunately susceptible to the “work of Satan” since they may have had limited exposure to the real world. They perhaps don’t understand what is “good” and what isn’t, purely from having no reference point.
Through the spirit of Mary, Alice was given the gift of hearing, speaking, and miracle-working. But these gifts came with a price and she started endangering the town’s folks and their souls, just to bring her master back to life.
All the while, Gerry is essentially exploiting her rising star just to get the story out there and “make it” as a reporter.
The ending scene with Alice (now voiceless) staring at her Uncle’s gravestone didn’t actually show how she progressed as a character. She merely smiled at Gerry, now learning ASL to communicate with her. Back to square one for Alice, but not for the sleazy journalist? (Psychopath narcissist, dare I say?)
Cricket Brown did what she could, so I won’t fault her. There’s only so much a pretty face can do for you in cinema, other than high ticket sales. If her character had more depth and better dialogue, I’m sure her performance would’ve been great.
But as we’ve seen, the film took a far less engaging route.
Journalism: The Sleazy Trade
I never read Herbert’s book, so I don’t know if he intended to write commentary regarding Deaf culture. But what I do know is journalist Gerry Fenn (Morgan) was a character in the novel, too. The story served as a treatise for journalism, according to its Wikipedia article.
Today the theme of mass media and journalism has become more potent than in the era of Herbert’s book (1983). In today’s hyper-saturated news market, journalists feel a greater pressure than before to snag a good story and be the first ones to report it.
But relevance does not a good story make.🧐
The film adaptation doesn’t tell the Shrine‘s story in an engaging way. Why should we care one iota for Gerry? He’s a drunken boor and Morgan doesn’t seem too invested in his character, in all honesty. You can tell he only did this movie for contractual reasons.
The film expects us to believe that Gerry and Alice bonded over one small conversation about music, of all things.
“Before, I could feel vibrations! Now I can hear music!” – Alice
I understand Alice was a Mary-come-lately with this talking stuff, but the writers could’ve given her better dialogue to make the viewers become invested. Her nun-like exhortations about believing in Mary were so, so painful.
During the film’s schmaltzy climax, Gerry, the hitherto atheist, weeps and prays to God to bring Alice back to life. Which He does. Miraculously. Inexplicably.
I believe that there’s no such thing as a bad story. Just bad execution.
The Unholy and The Unheard
If you’ve all seen A Quiet Place, you’ll know why it was an effective piece of Deaf horror cinema: it immersed the viewer into the Deaf world.
The deafening silence made the jump scares all the more effective. It also made the spoken conversations all the more impactful.
(I wrote a nifty piece about A Quiet Place a while back, by the way. Give it a read when you have the time.)
This is precisely what The Unholy should’ve done. It could’ve become a movie we’d still discuss 10 years from now!
How the Story Should’ve Gone…
So imagine the movie’s first scene showing Alice walking down the pews of her Uncle’s church.
Tap tap tap tap
We don’t “hear” her footsteps, but we feel them. That’s because Alice feels them, too.
We see Alice, a silent, pious woman, staring at the cold statue of the Virgin Mary. Day after day. Nary a word is spoken and nary a cogent thought is thought.
Alice sees her beloved Uncle, Father Hagan, speaking to his congregation but cannot receive his Divine message. She sits around in the varnished pews, which offer her a contorted reflection of herself. Alice sometimes picks up random echoes with her feet and hands, constant reminders that she’s missing out.
Life goes on for this impressionable Deaf woman.
Alice meets Mary
Then one day, upon looking at the Virgin Mary, Alice spots what looks like bloody tears. Then … she senses something flowing into her head like a stream. Nay, flowing into her ears. ‘Tis a stream so soothing, like the wind her face feels on a September morning.
Alice cannot conceptualize what she’s sensing. But suddenly, the sounds in her mind are melding into the written words she’s learned all her life:
“Alice … Hello … My Name … Mary.”
Alice … can hear. By Jove, she can hear!
She closes her eyes and sees the voice’s face calling her, beckoning her hand in friendship. The face’s white lips move as its velveteen words flow.
Alice feels her own lips move, in tandem. As if some strange force is controlling the muscles in her rosy cheeks. Making them twitch with black static, itching like a spider’s wandering legs…
And so it is that Alice gains the ability to hear and speak. So it is that Alice cures the disabled in the town of Banfield. And thus, Alice becomes an icon. A living, breathing effigy.
Downsides of Alice’s Power
Alice’s Uncle, Father Hagan, is overjoyed to communicate with his niece at last but is feeling strangely distant from her. Whenever Alice greets him with her warm smile, Hagan can see a cold force behind her eyes…
So close, yet so far…
After Hagan dies, Alice becomes consumed by her newfound glory and power. She believes she is owed this, after a life of invisibility. She doesn’t care how many souls go into damnation. Not one bit.
But wait, was that her voice talking? Or Mary’s?
Alice sees the fire around her, about ready to consume her congregation. Instead, it consumes her cult.
She fights back against Mary, the ethereal tyrant. She struggles against the diabolical force. Against the narcissist from the land of the dead.
After ashes blow away, after the dust settles…after the battle is won, Alice’s powers are lost. Her voice and hearing are lost as well.
A Deaf Woman with Vision
But Alice’s eyes are opened, at long last. With her renewed love for the Holy Spirit that revived her, she now leads her Uncle’s congregation, visually showing all the churchgoers how the Holy Spirit can come alive in this material realm…
Alice was once lost, but now she’s found…
Well. That’s That!
So that was my basic premise for my version of The Unholy. Sometimes I see a story, rife with potential, that is ultimately skewered by poor writing decisions. So I just have to step in and clean up the mess.
All the writers had to do was shift the focus from Gerry, the loser journalist, to Alice, the Deaf child hearing the world for the first time.
Immersions, that are built delicately, make for great engagement.
Think of the boy Jack in Room. He was raised in captivity as the product of sexual assault against his mother. When he finally left the garden shed, we saw the sky with him for the first time. We breathed in fresh air with him, for the first time.
And to think we could’ve heard something with Alice, for the first time!
Oh, what might’ve been!
This is Corey, the Literary Repairman, clocking out for the day! Cheers! 🍻
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