By KEVIN HOOVER
Father Hagan has a dilemma, and as the spiritual authority of Banfield, Massachusetts, it’s a mire that’s tearing him at the seams. His niece Alice, deaf and mute since birth, has had both senses restored through miraculous intervention she attributes to the Virgin Mary. She pays her good fortune forward and begins carrying out her own miracles, including curing the lung disease that has plagued her uncle. Grateful for her newly developed abilities, but apprehensive all the while and suspicious that Alice’s new lease on life is the work of something more devious than divine, Hagan’s fears are realized when he discovers what evil forces are at work.
William Sadler (The Shawshank Redemption) is the man under the collar in 2021’s THE UNHOLY, adding to the ever-expanding list of film and television roles he’s amassed over 40+ years in acting. His portrayal of Father Hagan continues a legacy that is peppered with the occasional stopover in horror, a divergence that he couldn’t be happier to take. Based on 1983’s Shrine by James Herbert, THE UNHOLY also stars Jeffrey Dean Morgan (The Walking Dead), Cary Elwes (SAW), and Cricket Brown. Brown stars in one of her first feature roles as Alice, the unwitting niece that raises hell in Sony Pictures Home Entertainment’s newest religious horror offering. Following the film’s theatrical release and marking its June 22nd arrival to the home video market, Sadler shares his insights on filming during a health pandemic, his approach to tackling horror films, and his secret as to why we’ve all been enjoying his movies for the last four decades.
As we’re preparing for its home video release, it’s important to not overlook the fact THE UNHOLY did get a proper theatrical release–one of the first major studio films to do so–as movie houses were reopening. How does it feel to be part of that initiative that’s working to retain some semblance of past comforts, as we learn to navigate the “new normal?”
There’s a full-court press to get this pandemic under control. I love that THE UNHOLY was part of that ‘getting back to normal’ and going back to the movie theaters. I was afraid there for a while; I didn’t know if it was ever going to be safe to go back.
Were there special challenges while filming in the midst of a global health crisis?
Oh my goodness, there were lots of challenges! We started shooting in March just as the pandemic was heating up. I live close enough to Boston where we were filming, and I had driven home for the weekend. I was about to turn around and drive back Sunday night when I got a phone call saying not to, as filming had been suspended. There was this series of Zoom meetings and phone calls where they’re trying to set up protocols that would keep people safe. It was all really uncharted territory, and we weren’t exactly certain how to do this, so we didn’t get back to filming again until September. Then we were being tested every single day for COVID and made sure we were wearing masks. They rewrote scenes or changed locations to make them safer to film. Things that were going to happen in a small room with several people now became a walk-and-talk outdoors where it was safer to film. There’s a couple of scenes where I’m addressing a crowd in my congregation in the church and they filmed from my side with no one out there except a cameraman and a mic guy, then they turned around and spread people out in the pews and shot them, to build up a crowd of people that are listening to me.
Did some of the scenes that had to be reshot or modified affect the end product, or did THE UNHOLY still play close to the director’s original vision?
I think it all stayed pretty close to the heart of what the director wanted. You just couldn’t put 50 people crowded next to each other in a church without masks and shoot them all day long the way you used to you. I actually think that in some ways it may have helped, because we had to get creative, to sort of think outside the box. “How do we get this shot?” or “How do we retain the impact of that scene, but now shoot it outdoors?”
Your portfolio is exhaustive and impressive, spanning decades in both film and television. While most would be familiar with you from films like The Shawshank Redemption, Die Hard 2, and The Mist, the Rue Morgue readership will also likely appreciate your contributions to the Tales from the Crypt series, as well as its spin-offs Demon Knight and Bordello of Blood. Tell us a little about how horror factors into your world, and what the process is like when considering a role like that of Father Hagan in THE UNHOLY.
I appreciate the fact that people like scary stories and they love being frightened. When I take on a job in a horror movie, first, I look for a really good, scary story and then I try to approach it the way I would any A-list film – I try to make my characters believable. If the audience buys it, if they say, “I believe this guy is what he’s pretending to be,” if they can hang on to who I’m playing, I can take them anywhere. Whether it’s horror or comedy or a drama, I approach the roles the same way, in that my job is to make these characters interesting but also believable. I find when I’m watching a movie, as soon as I see somebody who’s all over the place and feels fake, I drop out. I don’t care about the story anymore because I’m looking at this person who’s clearly not a very good actor.
Horror always follows a structure of good vs. evil, but religious horror does so in a manner that could be considered an assault on a viewer’s most sacred of beliefs. THE UNHOLY follows suit, featuring imagery of flaming crosses and violent death inside a house of worship, among other things. Undoubtedly, you’ll have some fans go into this film solely because of your association with it. What do you say to those folks who get something a little different than perhaps what they bargained for?
That’s the risk that we take; maybe they won’t like what they see. I suppose some people would be offended by that, but then I would hope they’d figure it out because it’s pretty apparent where we’re going. I think that religion lends itself well to horror. The idea that there’s a Holy Ghost that will rise again from the dead, that’s all in the Christian canon. All the miracles being performed, the Devil speaking to people, that’s all in there in the mythology of the Christian religion, which is why I think these movies work as well as they do.
For those who consume a steady diet of horror entertainment, religious horror can be a tough nut to crack. Chief in part is due to fans believing they’ve already seen the best of what’s out there, in films like The Omen and The Exorcist. What makes THE UNHOLY worthy of their time?
I think what’s extraordinary about THE UNHOLY is that you’re swept up in the miracles that the movie starts with. Cricket Brown’s performance is just extraordinary, and you get caught up in the things that are happening to the characters on-screen. When it starts to go off the rails and everything is not what it appears to be, you’re already in too deep. As an audience, you’re invested in Father Hagan, Alice, and Gerry [Jeffrey Dean Morgan] I think that’s why it works as well as it does. You can tell it’s a different take; it’s founded in religion but it’s a very different position on demonic possession, and that’s why I think people will enjoy it.
THE UNHOLY is now available for rent or purchase from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment.