By RYAN COLEMAN
Are we in the midst of a book to screen literary horror adaptation renaissance? Or are we in the midst of a Stephen King to screen adaptation renaissance? As King’s chokehold on the voice of literary horror tightens – at least in as far as dominance is measured by whose work overwhelmingly gets acquired and adapted – it can often feel like the same thing. Since the 2017 releases of the latest variation on It and Mike Flanagan’s quiet Netflix character study Gerald’s Game, the culture has been absolutely buried in King adaptations. Each time you come up for air from the latest, Deadline announces that five more are commencing production. I love King. I have a deep respect and admiration that stretches back, like many of my generation, to my Mom passing on her copies probably before I was old enough to read them. But isn’t there anyone else? One thinks of the volumes of untapped material from old masters like Ann Radcliffe and Le Fanu, to prolific contemporary voices like Junji Ito, John Ajvide Lindqvist, and the most slept on King contemporary, James Herbert.
Finally an adaptation worthy of Herbert’s “crude power” (as King himself once characterized the English novelist’s style) as a storyteller has arrived. New from Screen Gems is THE UNHOLY, a hybrid investigative journalism thriller and supernatural horror story based on Herbert’s 1984 novel Shrine. Sitting, for the first time, in the director’s chair is Evan Spiliotopoulos, who also adapted the screenplay. Spiliotopoulous is a prolific screenwriter with a varied career, ranging wildly from lurid, late ‘90s TV movies, to an eight-year run writing animated children’s films for Disney, to most recently finding footing as a scripter of big-budget action films (The Rock’s Hercules, the new Charlie’s Angels). Finally at a point in his career where a studio will bring on Sam Raimi as a producer just to convince him to direct his own material, Spiliotopoulos decided for his first directorial venture to return to a story that has haunted him since he was a teen.
THE UNHOLY follows Jeffrey Dean Morgan in a ravishingly assured performance as Gerry Fenn, a once renowned journalist whose career blew apart after widespread fraud and fabrications were exposed in his reporting. The film opens on Fenn chasing humiliating pay-for-play local color stories to stay afloat, and hitting the bottle hard to cope. The latest lead brings him to Banfield, an unassuming small town in Central Massachusetts. Before Fenn can turn right around and leave after the rumors of cow mutilations turn out to be a bust, he crosses paths in a tense midnight scene with Alice Pagett (Cricket Brown, in her debut), a young deaf-mute woman who miraculously regains the powers of hearing and speech. Alice credits her miracle to a spirit named “Mary,” who guides her to perform some healings of her own on the townsfolk. As the story’s notoriety spins outward, attracting international attention, Fenn must weigh career redemption against what begins to seem like a malevolent force behind it all.
Combining atmosphere-rich, on-location visuals, an ethically complex narrative premise, and a set of fabulous performances from a cast which includes horror-fan favorites Cary Elwes and William Sadler, THE UNHOLY is resolutely strong debut effort from Spiliotopoulos. RUE MORGUE sat down with the director days before the premiere to talk about adapting Herbert’s novel, how to cast a lovable asshole, and pulling inspiration from Billy Wilder.
Before we really get into questions, your film is set and shot in Massachusetts, and I want to commend you for getting some real Massachusetts accents in there.
We were really there. We shot in Sudbury, Massachusetts, outside of Boston. We shot on the grounds of the Longfellow’s Wayside Inn, and all our supporting cast, besides the ones you recognize, are local actors. Everyone from Bates Wilder, who plays our local farmer, to our waitress, police officers, and parishioners. Everybody’s local. Cary [Elwes] does, I think, a dead-on Massachusetts accent.
It’s uncanny! THE UNHOLY intertwines quite a few genres, but the narrative of faith and doubt in the Christian context forms the backbone of the film, and then you have all the ethical questions that context raises. Once you’ve got those narrative threads balanced in a screenplay, how do go about making sure they’re equally balanced while shooting, editing, and so forth?
Being first and foremost a writer, my strength is in the structure of the screenplay. The entire cast and crew committed to the screenplay that we had. There were very few changes, so given that we had faith in the material, everybody kind of had their marching orders. But the job of the director is to make sure everybody is on the same page with those marching orders and is following them.
I love that you mention the combination of genres because my jokey description of the film is it’s Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole as directed by Mario Bava. Not that I’m comparing myself to Mario Bava…but you know what I mean. In Ace in the Hole, Kirk Douglas plays a corrupt journalist who discovers that there are survivors in a mine cave-in, but he doesn’t tell anyone because he wants to milk the story for as long as possible. Gerry Fenn [Jeffery Dean Morgan] is someone who, like that character, or even more like the real character of Stephen Glass, was once a successful journalist who is caught manufacturing stories, and his career is ruined. He sees this story as his path to redemption but soon discovers that professional redemption comes at the cost of the destruction of a young girl, an entire town, and possibly the entire world. The task was taking Fenn’s character, creating that redemption arc for him, and having all the other characters mirror it with their own personal, “What would you sell your soul for?” dilemma. Some come out of it okay, and some, we won’t say who, do not.
It feels like the two main characters, Jerry and Alice, are on opposite trajectories. Jerry comes into the film full of doubt and must move from a place of doubt to a place of belief, whereas Alice experiences a miracle at the outset and goes from a place of pure faith to doubting something she’s spent her whole life believing in.
I’ll also throw in the third spoke in the wheel there is Monsignor Delgarde [Diogo Morgado]. He’s following a very realistic protocol — in the case of miracles, the Vatican sends out a priest who is an Inquisitor, and in the case of a proposed saint, they send out a postulator to verify them. His job is to disprove the miracle using science, medicine, and technology. Their nickname is the “Devil’s Advocate.” What I love about this setup is that Gerry is a man of doubt who needs a miracle to be true to get his story, and the Monsignor is a man of faith who is doing everything he can to disprove the miracle. Alice is in the middle, a woman of faith who has to move toward doubt in order to save everyone.
I read that you first encountered James Herbert’s novel decades ago, and it’s stayed with you all this time. How long ago did you get the idea to adapt the material, and how long have you been carrying a proper treatment around?
I first read the novel when I was 13, and I have wanted to adapt the novel since I was 13. Honestly. I have always been a writer and forever wanted to be a screenwriter. I’ve been basically collecting books that I wanted to adapt since I was younger, but Shrine has stayed with me since the minute I read it. It’s like Ace in the Hole meets The Exorcist, which is such a great setup. I’ve had a treatment probably since the time I wrote Hercules. That’s when I really became a live-action feature writer. That was in 2013, and over the last eight years, I’ve gone to Universal, like, “You like me. Hey Paramount, you like me. Buy it from me!” It was Screen Gems who eventually bit, and then they made me the unexpected offer to direct. I did not want to, I really had to be dragged kicking and screaming into it. Being a screenwriter for so long, I’ve seen what directors go through. But pairing me with Sam Raimi made me feel a hell of a lot better. I always had a secret hope that at the production stage Sam or someone else would say “My God we really need to get an adult in the room.” But they didn’t, and here we are.
I watch a good amount of horror movies, I’m sure you do too, I think about them a lot, and probably since the 1970s there has been a very popular way of constructing a horror movie where…
I know exactly what you’re going to say.
You know what I’m going to say. That there are just so many horror movies that are designed around anxious but beautiful, thin, white, 22-year-old women…
Right, blonde. They’re scared all the time and usually being chased around by a huge knife. A lot of great movies follow that formula, but there is something so refreshing about watching an extraordinarily charismatic adult man going through these frightening, humbling experiences.
You know I mentioned Ace in the Hole — we needed a Kirk Douglas. We needed a guy who is funny, sexy, and appealing playing a jackass, but one who you want to be good by the end. And Jeffrey has that in spades. He is really a star, isn’t he? There are quite a few journalistic thrillers that are also character studies, but not nearly as many supernatural thrillers that are character studies. A lot of the best horror films of the 1970s were plot-driven and character-driven, and what I wanted to do on this film is see how far back I can push toward that. This is not a film designed around jump-scare set pieces. The evolution is built around a character, and the scares come in naturally.
But there is also so much plot that you have to get through in this film. From a writing standpoint, and then a directing standpoint, what processes were most important for you in sorting out the narrative? From preparation to storyboarding, were there a lot of revisions, and did you have any hand in the edit?
The saying goes, when you’re adapting a book, the scenes that stay with you after you read it the first time are the scenes that will form the spine of your screenplay. Shrine is a 450 page book, and my screenplay was 105 pages. What you’re doing is a lot of distilling. And because it isn’t an ensemble, but a study around a leading character, all the scenes bend toward Gerry’s point of view. That created a through-line. In the book, by contrast, the entire town is a character. There are shopkeepers that are characters, there are more priests, Alice has parents. It’s got an epic scope, and that’s fantastic. It could have been a TV series. But because this is a feature it’s Gerry Fenn’s story, and everything has to support that story.
That’s one aspect of managing the story. In terms of shaping the story, thankfully, because of Screen Gems, I was able to be involved in every aspect down to the edit. So even the editing process was about staying true to Gerry’s story. After that was locked in, we weaved through scares. In terms of revisions, revisions were primarily done when we found a location and saw what the environment was really going to look like. And then there’s budget. We were a pretty small budget Sony-wise. The main challenge when we returned from the pandemic break was working with the extras. Thank goodness the first week of production in February we shot a scene at the end that required hundreds of extras in a packed space. We shot the entire third act first thing over the course of a week.
That huge tent scene would have been impossible with social distancing.
We would have never been able to shoot that under these conditions. In the second phase, the Massachusetts CDC only allowed 10 extras in a room at any given time, and they had to be six feet apart unless they were family units. I will completely confess that during a certain funeral scene, if you pause it, you will see the same people in five different places.
Wow, I did not notice that.
Faith and money seem like the last two things that should go together, but this is America! In the film, you show not only each character’s personal stake in this series of supposed miracles but the financial stake, for better and for worse, that Banfield and its residents have in the town being declared a holy site.
I researched Lourdes and Fatima, which are the two largest Catholic holy sites in the world. I don’t want to use the word Disneyland, but look, these are places of faith as much as they are places of tourism. The economies of the cities, and even the countries where these sites are depend on them. Interesting the United States doesn’t have a shrine like that. Part of the conceit of the movie is what would really happen to a town where miracles like this start occurring. Cary Elwes ’character Bishop Gyles kind of embodies that. When he senses the potential in these events, he basically says, “ Oh boy!” The reason this aspect is important because it grounds the movie. We are, like you said, in the United States. You have to ask yourself, in this case, what would really happen?
THE UNHOLY hits theater on Friday, April 2nd, 2021 from Screen Gems.