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Film / The Unholy

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The Unholy is a 2021 supernatural horror film based on the 1983 novel Shrine by James Herbert. It was the directorial debut of Evan Spiliotopoulos, who also wrote and produced the film alongside Sam Raimi. It stars Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Katie Aselton, William Sadler, Diogo Morgado, Cricket Brown, and Cary Elwes.

The film follows the small town of Banfield, Massachusetts, where a journalist named Gerry Fenn (Morgan) finds a young woman named Alice Pagett (Brown) who, despite being deaf and mute all her life, suddenly can hear and speak, and claims to be able to see and hear the Virgin Mary. She goes around performing miracles, but suspicions begin to be raised when dark histories are uncovered regarding the town.

Tropes presented in the film:

  • Adapted Out: Lots of things, considering that the film takes a five-hundred-page book and trims it down to a plot that lasts little over an hour and half.
    • Notable character examples include Rodney Tucker (a supermarket owner who wanted to expand, coasting off the revival Banfield experienced as a result of Alice's visions), Paula (Tucker's mistress), George Southworth (a hotel manager who also wished to coast off of Alice), Mother Marie-Claire, Reverend Mother of the Convent (where Alice stays for most of the novel; Alice in the film does stay in a convent, but no Reverend Mother is shown), Ben, Sue Gates's son (see Composite Character for Sue herself), and Wilkes, a disgruntled man who assassinates Alice. See Death by Adaptation for Alice's parents.
    • In the book, Alice had a supernumerary nipple below her heart. In traditional folklore, such things were known as "witch's marks" or "witch's teats," already a tip-off that something was amiss with Alice. The film cuts this out, which also results in the removal of a rather infamous moment wherein a cat familiar sucks on Alice's supernumerary nipple as she—or rather, Elnor—relives a sexual encounter from her past life.
    • The records containing the history of Elnor were kept in a separate church than the one the oak tree was located in. Here, the records are hidden in the church's basement (roughly corresponding to the crypt in the novel).
    • Elnor was a Depraved Bisexual in the novel, having slept with the son of a priest and two nuns in training, one of whom was Driven to Suicide after being filled with guilt over her acts (attitudes towards same-sex relationships being different back in the Middle Ages). This is absent from the film. There's also a heavy implication that Alice is descended from the nun-in-training who didn't kill herself, as Elnor's spirit recognizes Alice's mother as that woman (who's name, incidentally, was Rosemund).
    • Numerous people were healed by Alice. While this is implied in the film, the only ones we see are Toby Walsh (who was an unnamed boy in the book), and Father Hagan, who was never healed by her in the novel.
    • A subplot involved Riordan, the local farmer, dealing with strange occurrences around his premises due to the events of the book, notably his animals getting spooked. This is dropped, and the only farmer in the film appears for one scene.
  • Adaptation Name Change:
    • A minor case. Monsignor Delgard in the book is referred to as Monsignor Delgarde in the film.
    • Bishop Caines in the novel becomes Bishop Gyles.
    • Riordan, the farmer whose field is near the church, is named "Geary."
    • Elnor from the book becomes Mary Elnor in the film. The film adds in the plot point that she needs people to put their faith in her (under the assumption that she is the Virgin Mary) in order for her to claim their souls. This is absent in the novel, where Alice simply says upon gaining her voice that she saw the "Immaculate Conception."
  • Adaptation Relationship Overhaul:
    • Alice in the novel remains removed from Gerry, Father Hagan, and Monsignor Delgard, never having any real interactions with them outside of Mass. This helps conceal the fact that Alice actually suffers from a Death of Personality and Demonic Possession early on. In the film, Alice is Father Hagan's niece and interacts with Gerry a lot through his interviews with her, becoming friends with him.
    • Gerry had a complicated relationship with a woman named Sue Gates, who he eventually drifts apart from when Alice's healing causes her to reevaluate her life and turn back to the Church. Gerry then became close to a journalist named Nancy Shelbeck, who he stays with for the rest of the novel, before ultimately splitting from her and going back to Sue, even deciding to give the Church a chance. In the film, Gerry's only real interaction with another woman is with Natalie, who is initially cold towards him (in fairness, her first encounter with him was after he was driving under the influence and nearly ran over Alice), before warming up to him as the film goes on. The film's ending implies that the two will possibly get together.
  • Adaptational Attractiveness:
    • Monsignor Delgarde is noticeably younger and more handsome than he was described in the book.
    • Alice being aged up to eighteen can be considered this as well.
    • Extremely Downplayed with Mary Elnor. Both the novel and film portray her ghost as a burnt corpse in a hooded outfit, which the novel specifies is meant to be a nun's habit, as she was a nun in the book. The hooded appearance is retained in the film, but with the addition of a mask nailed to Mary's face in the image of the Virgin Mary herself. There is no mention of Mary in the film having been a nun, so it is likely the outfit she wears is also part of the punishment of having a mask nailed to her face—as a symbol mocking her for claiming to be the Blessed Virgin.
  • Adaptational Backstory Change: Per the Setting Update, Mary Elnor is a woman in 1840s Massachusetts who was hanged and burned for her witchcraft. In the novel, she was a nun in Medieval England who was punished for more or less the same things.
  • Adaptational Early Appearance: Mary Elnor's hanging and burning is the prologue of the film, already giving away the fact that the supernatural force causing the miracles was demonic in nature. In the novel, a great deal of time is spent building up the true nature of Alice's miracles—there are early hints that something is wrong, but Elnor herself doesn't appear or get a name until roughly four-fifths into the book.
  • Adaptational Heroism: Alice. In the book, Alice is slowly possessed by Elnor, eventually becoming her reincarnated, before being unceremoniously assassinated by a man named Wilkes during her final public appearance at a Mass in front of the cursed oak. Even before then, her connection to Elnor makes her violently reject a Communion wafer, and—under Mary's influence—she murders both her father and mother. In the film, Mary Elnor seemingly cannot fully possess Alice until she completes the Satanic rite at the service for the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. Mary, meanwhile, commits murders independent of Alice; once Alice learns of Mary's true nature, she immediately turns on her.
  • Adaptational Jerkass: Monsignor Delgard in the book is on good terms with Gerry from the start, and even commissions him to look into the history of Banfield when he suspects something may be amiss with Alice. In the film, Delgarde dismisses Gerry due to his past of fabricating stories, before ultimately agreeing to help him in the end.
  • Adaptational Superpower Change: Mary Elnor's powers are explicitly linked to Satan, having gained them through a Deal with the Devil. In the novel, Elnor's acts are decried as Satanic, and her a witch, but no Deal with the Devil is ever implied. Her comments, and the crazed writings of her accomplice and former lover, Thomas, indicate that Elnor was some kind of psychic, which translated into her being blasphemous in general, believing in the power of one's own will as opposed to God.
  • Adaptational Villainy: Downplayed. Elnor in the original novel was already evil, having murdered children and performed other vile acts. However, at no point was it made apparent that she needed to condemn souls to Hell for her powers. The novel shows her drawing from the life force of those who believe in her, but eternal damnation never comes up.
  • Age Lift:
    • Alice in the novel was eleven years old. The movie ages her up to eighteen.
    • Meanwhile, Monsignor Delgarde is portrayed as younger than he was in the novel, which implied he was around Hagan's age.
    • Gerry himself was stated to be somewhere around his thirties in the novel, but is here played by Jeffrey Dean Morgan, who is in his fifties. The age up works towards the film's interpretation of the character, however: Gerry in the novel would have been too young to have had a rising career in journalism, and then end up spending about a decade dealing with the fallout of losing his job over the resulting scandal fabricating stories would have caused.
  • Antagonist Title: Mary Elnor is the titular unholy.
  • Burn the Witch!: Mary Elnor, after being caught for her Satanism and crimes against the people, is hung and burned.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Though Mary is stopped from damning countless innocents to Hell and is successfully destroyed, all of her miracles are taken back, such as young Toby Walsh becoming crippled again and Alice losing her hearing and speech again. Additionally, Father William Hagan and Monsignor Delgarde have still been killed. Gerry also got blacklisted in journalism after sacrificing his career to stop Mary Elnor and every single person who attended the Mass both in person and through the live stream began questioning their faith after learning of this revelation. On the upside, Gerry, a lapsed Catholic, seems to have begun to reevaluate his lack of faith, having seen both the work of the Devil and, more importantly, of God.
  • Black Boss Lady: Monica Slade (Christine Adams), Gerry's former editor whom he frequently contacts to get his old job back.
  • Casting Gag: Monsignor Delgarde is played by Diogo Morgado, whose Star-Making Role is playing Jesus Christ.
  • Composite Character: Natalie Gates in the film is one for Sue Gates (same last name, and Gerry's initial love interest), Nancy Shelbeck (a journalist from New York who also gets involved with Gerry, and helps unravel the mystery of the miracles), and an unnamed doctor who inspects Alice after she is healed.
  • Deal with the Devil: Mary Elnor made a deal with Satan for power and everlasting life, which she repaid by sending innocent souls to Hell.
  • Death by Adaptation: Alice's parents, Len and Molly Pagett, are stated to be dead by the time of the film, having died when she was younger. In the novel, Len is killed in a car wreck caused by Elnor, while Molly is burned alive by Elnor near the end.
  • Demoted to Extra: Geary, the local farmer who lives near the church, disappears after his only scene early on. In the novel, the local farmer (named "Riordan") appears in other chapters, commenting on the events and dealing with his farm animals getting spooked by the supernatural presence.
  • Fake Faith Healer: Played with. Those who put their faith in "Mary" are in fact healed, but their faith is put into an imposter, and the imposter intends to damn their souls to Hell in exchange for their miracles.
  • Familial Body Snatcher: Mary's original plan was to achieve eternal life via living through her descendants, starting with her son and later Alice.
  • Freeze-Frame Bonus: Mary Elnor's confession is briefly seen in full during the scene where Gerry looks it up. Though Elnor immediately destroys it by fire in that same moment, pausing the film at the right moment can give the viewer a good look at what was written. Among the other things mentioned in it, it's revealed that Elnor gained one extra year of life for every soul she condemned. This means that, had she completed her ritual in the final act of film, she would be functionally immortal, given how many people were watching the service.
  • Good is Not Nice: Monsignor Delgarde makes it his mission early on to disprove Alice's miracles and is skeptical of Gerry due to his past mistakes. His reasons for skepticism are presented as justified—the Church needs to thoroughly make sure the miracles are genuine so as not to be caught up in a hoax, and Gerry's actions got people fired from their jobs.
  • Graceful Loser: Monsignor Delgarde tries to disprove the miracles, and does not trust Gerry due to his past as an Immoral Journalist. Once Father Hagan is healed and it is confirmed to be a true miracle, he drops both matters entirely. Justified, as he is a man of the Church. A genuine miracle is an affirmation of his faith, after all.
  • He Knows Too Much: Mary Elnor kills Father Hagan after he discovers the hidden journal containing information about her true nature. She takes a little longer to kill Gerry when the latter begins suspecting something and does some digging around, but it's possible that Gerry is a case of Can't Kill You, Still Need You, since it's his coverage and interviews with Alice that allow the miracles to be spread around the world.
  • Heroic Sacrifice: Non-fatal version. Gerry sacrifices his already shaky reputation as a journalist to cast doubt on the Banfield citizens over Mary Elnor's act to save them from her damnation. The Time Skip at the end shows he's blacklisted.
  • I Don't Like the Sound of That Place: Banfield's original name was "Banefield." It was described as a place of "strange and terrible wonders," clearly alluding to Mary Elnor and the terror she brought on the town in the past.
  • Immoral Journalist: Downplayed with Gerry. In his past, he fabricated several stories in order to profit from the fame, and was fired from his job. He tries to continue in this trend of exaggeration until he gets involved with Alice. Upon befriending her and working to stop Mary, he puts aside his job for the greater good. This is in contrast to the novel, where Gerry was portrayed as a pretty average journalist who did make mistakes in reporting, but only because he reported too fast before getting all his facts straight.
  • Juxtaposed Reflection Poster: As shown above, the supernatural entity of this movie poses as Virgin Mary, but her reflection on water surface reveals her true identity—an evil spirit named Mary Elnor.
  • Living Statue: Variation. Mary Elnor twice appears by breaking out of a statue, once in the church basement to pursue Gerry and Natalie, and again in the Archdiocese to attack Gerry.
  • Named In The Adaptation: The unnamed boy in a wheelchair from the novel is named "Toby Walsh" in the film.
  • One-Steve Limit: An important plot point. Mary Elnor easily passes herself as Virgin Mary by saying her first name alone because she's a supernatural entity that is invisible to humans.
  • Pragmatic Adaptation: Presumably the reason why Alice is given an Age Lift. An adult actress is a lot easier to work with than a child. Especially notable because the film removes some of the racier elements involving Alice (who, by the way, was eleven), such as Elnor's masturbatory fantasy while in Alice's body, and her supernumerary nipple.
  • Religious Horror: The film deals with questions of faith, and what damage can be done when a malevolent entity impersonates a religious figure.
  • Sealed Evil in a Can: Following her execution, Mary Elnor's soul is imprisoned within a kern doll, only released when the doll is broken.
  • Setting Update: The novel is set in the UK, with Banfield being explicitly located near Brighton. The film, meanwhile, is set in Massachusetts. This also results in Mary Elnor instead being a woman who was executed in the 1840s, as opposed to the time of Mary Tudor. Furthermore, the novel was released and set in the 1980s, while the film is set in the 2020s. Mass-media evolving to include social media and livestreaming also becomes a plot point.
  • Sexy Priest: Monsignor Delgarde, played by the Tall, Dark, and Handsome Diogo Morgado.
  • Sinister Minister: Bishop Gyles, who knows about Mary's true nature, but elects to do nothing about it for the sole purpose of bringing more people to The Church. It does not matter to him if the people who come are tricked and sentenced to Hell, he is simply concerned with the Church's reputation on Earth. Crosses over somewhat into Arbitrary Skepticism, as Gyles is a devout Catholic and should probably take the information about Mary more seriously than he ends up doing in the film. If anything, Gyles's reaction to the information—writing off the warnings about Elnor's true nature as just an act of vigilantism against an unarmed woman—makes perfect sense for someone in the real world, but in-universe it comes off as this trope mixed with Too Dumb to Live.
  • Spared by the Adaptation: Alice is pretty much lost by the end of the original novel, having become nothing more than a new body for Elnor, and then unceremoniously murdered by Wilkes in front of many. There isn't even any attempt by Gerry or anyone to stop her, as no option was really made apparent. In the film, though Alice commits a Heroic Sacrifice to stop Mary Elnor and cut her off from the living world, she is revived by God after Gerry pleads for her to survive.
  • The Stoic: The few times we see the Virgin Mary from Alice's POV, she has a very neutral expression, never changing it. That's because it's all glamour; Mary Elnor's face is covered by a mask in the image of the Virgin Mary nailed to her.
  • Town with a Dark Secret: Banfield's history regarding Mary Elnor seems to have been suppressed in the present day, as no one in town makes any connection between Alice's miracles and what happened before. That being said, Elnor's confession is still readily accessible in the Boston Archdiocese, meaning that the Church at least has some record of it.