“The Unholy” is a good tight scary commercial theological horror film. Its spooks and demons unfurl within a pop version of Christianity, which makes it sound no more exotic than last week’s “Exorcist” knockoff or last year’s helping of the “Conjuring” franchise. But “The Unholy” has a religious plot that actually works for it. It stars an unheralded actress named Cricket Brown — mark my words, she’s going to go on to major things — who plays a deaf-mute young woman named Alice, who has visions of what she thinks is the Virgin Mary. Absorbing Mary’s spirit, Alice can suddenly hear and speak, and she can heal the sick, which attracts crowds of people to her rural town of Banfield, Mass. “The Unholy” is adapted from a 1983 James Herbert novel, and as written and directed by Evan Spiliotopoulos it could almost be a faith-based horror film. We know that the movie can’t be all sweetness and light, but what matters is how solidly it believes in those things. That’s what gives its dark side a power. Good and evil face off in every horror movie, but this one is truly a holy war.
The central character, apart from Alice, is a defrocked journalist-turned-tabloid reporter named Gerry Fenn, played by Jeffrey Dean Morgan with a sleazy middle-aged panache that makes him a winningly jaded stand-in for all of us skeptics in the audience. Fenn has come to Banfield to cover a bogus sensational story about the mutilation of cows. But he hangs around long enough to see Alice, standing in front of a spindly dead tree, go into a beatific trance-out. When she starts to heal people, and he watches a kid with muscular dystrophy walk away from his wheelchair, he realizes he’s got a scoop.
Cricket Brown, who at times evokes the young Natalie Portman, has a melodious voice and features that quiver with life even when she’s in repose. She seems possessed, all right — by the emotions surging around inside her. Her Alice is like Joan of Arc turned into a teenage televangelist who doesn’t just swoon for God; she takes command. It’s the depth of faith she conveys in the miracles she’s channeling that draws us into the movie. When the forces of Satan show up, you feel like they’re violating a daydream.
This is the first feature directed by Evan Spiliotopoulos, who has worked as a screenwriter on films like “Hercules” and “The Huntsman: Winter’s War,” and while he hits conventional beats of megaplex horror, he’s able to mold them with a streamlined coherence and directness. The tropes may appear standard — the flash cuts of evil, the whispers on the soundtrack, the cloaked specter who keeps showing up to jolt us, like Slender Man or Candyman or a recurring ghost out of “Insidious 9: Please Don’t Go in the Attic Again.” But Spiliotopoulos doesn’t assault the audience with supernatural imagery as though he were tossing grisly confetti. There’s a poetic restraint to the effects.
The trouble with too many horror movies is that they muster all that technology and timing and rictus-grin-in-the-medicine-chest-mirror creepiness to basically say “Boo!” Watching “The Unholy,” I jumped a few times, but beyond the scare factor the film’s resurgent demon becomes a true character who reveals her nature in a kind of evil dance of the seven veils. She’s as hypnotically possessed as the long-black-haired specter in “Ringu,” and she moves with an ominous herky-jerkiness that evokes the spider-walk scene that got restored for the 2000 re-release of “The Exorcist.” The film’s imagery is out of a Christian nightmare: the stigmata (in this case, religious statues with elegant tears of blood), the figure of Mary herself, who within that cloak wears a black mask that marks her as a haunted marionette of death.
No, she’s not that Mary. She’s Mary Elnor, a 19th-century woman who performed miracles by channeling not God but Satan. In 1845, she was hung from a tree (the dead one that draws Alice), a mask nailed onto her face (an homage to the chilling prologue of Mario Bava’s “Black Sunday”), and burned alive. Now she has come back — a figment of the devil disguised as the spirit of the Virgin Mary. And she’s working through Alice, who believes her visions are a force of good.
William Sadler, as the saintly but doomed Father Hagan (Alice is his niece), quotes Martin Luther, summing up the theme of the film: “Where God builds a church, the devil builds a chapel.” And Cary Elwes, as Bishop Gyre from the Archdiocese of Boston, sports a Boston accent that’s shaky at first, but Elwes uses it well, turning the bishop into a religious politician who knows how to exploit the showbiz of a good miracle. He leads a push to make the church of Banfield into a holy shrine, like the ones at Lourdes and Fatima. At the climax, when a crowd gathers in a tent to see him host the service of the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, you can feel the bad vibes gather as surely as in the prom climax of “Carrie.” “The Unholy” doesn’t rewrite the book of religious horror; it goes fairly strictly by the book. But it’s the rare contempo horror film that actually has faith in the story it’s telling.