Anchor Bay continues its predilection for distributing films that employ ex-cast members of TV’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer with their latest release UNHOLY. This time the former Xander, Nicholas Brendon takes a turn as Lucas, the hapless stoner son of genre favorite Adrienne Barbeau (THE FOG) in a film so chock full of genre cliché’s it’s liable to keep ones head swirling for weeks.
Everyone loves a good top-secret experiment, government cover-up, or Nazi conspiracy film. Need proof? Well, they’re making another Indiana Jones film for one. This time our film opens in the rural Pennsylvanian countryside as Martha (Adrienne Barbeau) is buying sunflowers for her daughter Hope’s (Siri Baruc) birthday. Creeped out by the grizzly shopkeeper, Martha returns home just in time to witness Hope—locked in the cellar—blow her own head off with shotgun, but not before uttering the cryptic like “beware of the experiment”. Horrified and unable to cope with the tragedy Martha is torn between leaving her life behind and solving the mystery of Hope’s suicide. As Martha and Lucas delve further into the film’s murky plot and layered backstory they discover a vast conspiracy involving the forces of science, the supernatural and an “unholy” trinity of time travel, invisibility and mind control.
If that last bit causes you to sit up and say “huh?”, then my friend that likely puts you squarely in the viewing majority on this production. It seems that writer Sam Freeman (ZOMBIE HONEYMOON) and director Daryl Goldberg didn’t know what kind of film they were trying to make. So, they decided to make them all! Astute historians of a conspiratorial nature will see that Freeman and Goldberg seem to be mining the “Philadelphia Experiment” to try and ground their free-for-all film in some kind of discernable reality. What they really wind up doing is borrowing microcosms of circumspect history, 1950’s Atomic Age films and moody, 70’s, art house horror to try and create a supernatural family drama that feels better suited for the Lifetime television network than the horror section of your local video store.
The film starts on a promising note, and it’s is beautifully photographed using the practically horror-industry-standard, de-saturated cinematography scheme. The cold countryside, grayed-slat houses and overcast winter days add immeasurably to the melancholy feel that is echoed in the sad eyes of Martha. Adrienne Barbeau, who despite her laundry list of credits is a sadly underutilized actress, does a great deal with the limited script in the first ¾ of the film. Unfortunately as the film’s finale kicks into gear, Barbeau is saddled with even more banal dialogue and a twist that effectively kills off all of the audience sympathy for her—thereby placing the emotional arc of the story on Brendon who—past his spry introductory scene quips—could have played this part in his sleep. The final payoff is foreshadowed early on, so even if the twist threw you for a loop (and I can’t see why it should) the climax is a foregone conclusion—making a long-winded plot with too much dialogue and too little comprehension, seem even more disappointing.
UNHOLY suffers from a syndrome that is often associated with first time filmmakers. Many feel that this is their one and only shot and in doing that, they try to jam-pack their productions with as many ideas as possible. The caveat of “keep it simple stupid” isn’t just directed at the people presenting the ideas. It exists for the audiences benefit as well. UNHOLY is more problematic for its barrage of concepts than for the languid pace at which it delivers them. It may not suffer independent filmmaking’s “unholy trinity” of bad writing, bad directing and bad acting, but in this case two out of three still equals “bad”.