June 30, 2021 The Unhealer (Movie Review)
Carrie White, Michael Myers, the ladies of The Craft. Horror has a rich history of characters who were bullied only to end up taking the ultimate revenge on their tormentors. The trope’s success lies in the obvious relatability for outcast teens who dream of turning it all around someday—but does the formula still work? The Unhealer intends to find out when it delivers a blend of Sci-Fi and Supernatural Thriller to Digital, On Demand, Blu-ray, and DVD on June 8, 2021 thanks to Shout! Factory.
Directed by Martin Guigui (Swing 2003, 9/11 2017), and written by Kevin E. Moore and J. Shawn Harris (Star Quality short 2002), The Unhealer revolves around a bullied teen named Kelly (Elijah Nelson: Mad Men series, My Crazy Ex-Girlfriend series), who suffers from an eating disorder called pica. More likely to eat the styrofoam cup than the ramen inside, his misunderstood condition leaves him vulnerable to the torment of classmates who refer to him as “Trash Boy.” The school’s Neanderthal jock squad—brothers Nelson (David Gridley: The DUFF 2015, Team Kaylie series) and Reed (Gavin Casalegno: Noah 2014, Walker series), along with friends Brad (Thomas Archer: Black-ish series, L.A.’s Finest series),Tony (Will Ropp: The Way Back 2020, The Fallout 2021), and Tucker (Mike Gray: 9-1-1 series, Snowfall series)—are constantly watching his every move, just waiting to turn him upside down and cram him into any nearby garbage can.
Fortunately for the outcast teen a major shift in his fortune comes by chance, when his mother Bernice (Natasha Henstridge: Species 1995, The Whole Nine Yards 2000) encounters a roadside miracle healer who calls himself Reverend Pflueger (Lance Henriksen: Aliens 1986, Hard Target 1993). What happens next will change Kelly’s life forever—from being stalked by a man named Red Elk (Branscombe Richmond: Hard to Kill 1990, The Scorpion King 2002), bonding with the girl of his dreams (Kayla Carlson: All Rise series, Why Women Kill series), and finding a friend in a sheriff named Adler (Adam Beach: Flags of Our Fathers 2006, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit series) to unforeseen tragedy and the desire for revenge.
At 93 minutes, The Unhealer has a ‘90s feel to its presentation, creating a film that feels like a familiar classic—the catch being that this is not a cult classic that will never grow old, but one of the more cringey memories from your youth. A trite tale of revenge peppered with elements of Science Fiction, its stereotypical depictions of Native Americans and misogynistic commentary make it hard to imagine that this offering could have ever succeeded. Resting on a flawed foundation with more holes than a pair of black fishnets, it fumbles out of the start gate only to reach an unsatisfying conclusion.
So where does it go wrong? First with its screenplay, which packs too many clichés, coincidences, and twist endings into one mediocre package. From the desecrated Native American burial ground to the family of athletes-slash-bullies to the outcast ogling the pretty Girl Next Door, The Unhealer follows the formula for gloopy cheese. Admittedly the use of an eating disorder as rare as pica gives everything an initially intriguing spin, but it amounts to little importance and ultimately feels a bit forced; Kelly could have just as easily suffered from acne or a stutter, as the pica merely provides the impetus for Pflueger’s arrival.
Some of the more commonplace issues, such as poor audio quality and mixing, do not doom the movie, in and of themselves, but the story is just too poorly-crafted for forgiveness. For example, in depicting the bullies and the language they use between one another, the writers turn to the tired use of misogynistic slurs. Referring to one another as “pussies,” treating a girlfriend as property, and delivering such lovely epithets as “Would you put your vagina away?,” provide scenarios that only further offensive speech that has long since fallen out of favor. Given, this is a small thing in the scope of the narrative, but it’s just another sign of the sloppy approach taken.
The same might be said for the depiction of Native Americans, and choosing to center much of the supernatural subplot around a desecrated Native American burial ground. While not entirely offensive, it’s lazy, and indicative of the lack of attention that was given to detail throughout—something that plagues even the familiar and talented cast. Such is the case for poor Henstridge who is made to depict a somewhat dippy, but very devoted mother who just wants the best for her son. More or less present solely for her name, and so all of the men can fawn over her good looks, the seasoned actress delivers a dose of warmth with her portrayal, but she’s offered little chance to truly shine.
Similarly, TikTok star Nelson holds his own as Kelly, and Carlson is sweet as Dominique, but their characters are engaged in such rapid-fire ridiculousness that their roles never truly allow either of the actors to impress. Instead, they are merely fighting to keep up with the ten thousand twists. In this, Henriksen and Beach are the only two of the top billed actors who are provided the room to give wonderful performances in their very different roles. Memorable as the truly wacky Pflueger, Henriksen gives a short but brilliant delivery as an alcoholic with a serious God complex. Meanwhile, Beach anchors much of the film with his cool and collected Sheriff Adler, who might initially favor Kelly for his beautiful mother, but ends up being one of the sole forces for positive change.
What we’re left with is a film that relies on too many tired tropes, takes too many ludicrous twists, and asks its audience to suspend their disbelief in nearly every facet of the story. There are moments that are just too literal—such as the idea that every pain inflicted upon Kelly comes back to harm the one who inflicts it—and scenes that ask us to believe a mother would not ask any questions when her ill son suddenly informs her he’s invincible. Although there is an attempt to offer audiences an underlying message about change, the responsibilities that come with power, and the toxicity of the “boys will be boys” excuse, it’s fighting to swim through the layers of Velveeta.
So when it ultimately caps its transgressions with a convoluted ending, The Unhealer feels like a gigantic misfire. Aside from a soundtrack that prominently features Motionless In White and Stabbing Westward, two phenomenal bands, it just feels like a movie that is, by default, aimed at teenagers with little experience within either the Horror or Sci-Fi genres and, therefore, little material for comparison. If you’ve never seen classics such as 1976’s Carrie, sure, The Unhealer might seem unique somehow. For the rest of us, it lacks enough substance to justify its cliché choices. For this, Cryptic Rock gives The Unhealer 2.5 of 5 stars.