What’s most impressive about films of this type is that possible subject matter can be found across every imaginable realm. Medicine is always evolving, so it’s proven to be an incredible stomping ground for features. Areas of this great nation rich in history continue to dish up scenarios involving local legends, be they swamp creatures, infamous killers, or ghouls. Technology-laden high-rises have gotten into the business, giving storytellers one more place to situation their particulars ‘ghosts in the machine.’ And, of course, in countries where such people still abide, isn’t there some ancient Native American spirit just waiting to be woken up to begin killing again?
That’s kinda/sorta what you get with a package like The Unhealer (2020). It kinda/sorta dabbles in the realm of a faith healer who has secretly harnessed a very dark power unbeknownst to the people he uses it on for profit. Eventually, the spirit chooses a new host – one entirely unprepared for the challenges of having such dangerous skills – and before you know it the players are up the creek without so much as a canoe or a paddle. While the structure – that of a wronged high school teenager exacting his revenge on his nefarious classmates – isn’t all that new, methinks there’s always a little magic left in the well to give audiences a suitable chill.
Directed by Martin Guigui with a script from newcomers Kevin E. Moore and J. Shawn Harris, The Unhealer ekes out modest rewards for those willing to go back to high school one more time … even if this time may be the last …
From the product packaging:
“A bullied teenager gains the means to fight back when a botched faith healing bestows supernatural, shamanistic powers upon him. When his lifelong tormentors pull a prank that causes the death of someone he loves, the teen uses his newfound abilities for revenge and goes on a bloody rampage to settle the score.”
There’s a lot to unpack with a script as chocked full at The Unhealer’s is, but not a lot of it is all that easy to swallow. For starters, our protagonist/antagonist Kelly (played by Elijah Nelson) is not only a bit of a ‘local yokel’ (think ‘dweeb’) but also he suffers an eating disorder called Pica; this malady forces the sufferer to eat things of absolutely zero nutritional substance. In Kelly’s case, this means clothing, pencil erasers, and well … you name it. His smoking-hot small-town mother Bernice (the equally smoking-hot Natasha Henstridge) struggles to keep up with her son’s medical needs and putting food on the table. And the town’s influx of a heavy Native American Indian population occasionally implies there’s some minor strife between them and the rest of us as exemplified by Sheriff Adler’s (Adam Beach) independence from his men and some of their reactions to him. Suffice it to say, things aren’t exactly hunky dory in this little Arizona Cowtown.
Bernice’s desire to ultimately find a cure pushes her to consider the services of the traveling faith-healer, Dr. Pflueger (the great Lance Henriksen in a small role), with a name about as far from Indian-sounding as you can get. Before you know it, Pflueger dies in the act of treating young Kelly but not before someone magically and mystically transferring his abilities to the young man.
Now, there’s still more to the plot, and therein lies my central issue with so much of The Unhealer: the script really tried to bite off a lot more than was required to present this world as audiences needed to know it. Pretty soon, there’s a bitter high school football coach involved, all of this ‘healing’ and ‘revenge’ draws the attention of a local medicine man, and the subplots keep piling on like there’s no end. To director Guigui’s credit, he keeps the action going at about the right pace – it clocks in at a cool 90 minutes – but far too many secondary characters feel like unnatural creations when a few less was all that was needed.
There’s an efficiency that typically goes hand-in-hand with smaller Horror releases, and for the most part that works here: once Kelly gets his powers – ones that keep evolving based on his needs – the narrative shifts to the point where the standard teen revenge formula picks up the slack. But when Guigui and his crew try to tinker with soft messaging – with great power comes great responsibility, we Indians must defeat this ancient evil, etc. – the film clunks along slowly. It may’ve served all involved to reconsider what the catalyst for Kelly’s descent into darkness was, perhaps get to that a bit more quickly, and then let the bodies pile up in a single night as opposed to spreading this out.
It’s an imperfect ride, but it isn’t disappointing. The effects are quite good, and the performances – a few understandably campy – are solid. Nelson makes for an easygoing lead, and his gal pal Dominique (Kayla Carlson) have the right chemistry for a mismatched Romeo and Juliet. It even ends – as many horror films do – with the hook for a sequel: here’s hoping if they dip back into these waters that they do so with a tighter tale.
I’d be remiss in my duties if I failed to point out that the film has been bestowed with some interesting honors. It’s not uncommon for smaller yet well-produced features to garner recognition from the festival circuit, and this group has done quite well for itself. In 2020, the film won the ‘Best Sci-Fi Feature’ Award from the Studio City Film Festival. In 2021, it took home the trophy for ‘Best Supernatural Feature Film’ from the Philip K. Dick Science Fiction Film Festival. From the 2021 New York City International Film Festival, the title was bestowed top honors for the following: ‘Best Supporting Actor In A Feature Film,’ ‘Best Supporting Actress In A Feature Film,’ ‘Best Actor,’ ‘Best Actress,’ ‘Best Director,’ and ‘Best Feature Film.’ At the 2021 Jerome Indie Film and Music Festival, The Unhealer won the ‘Best Original Screenplay’ Jury Award. And there’s more – a lot more – that interested readers can check out on the flick’s IMDB.com page. It’s indeed some impressive accomplishments.
As for the special features? Meh. Granted, it’s nice to have something as opposed to nothing, but these really feel more like the old-style bloated advertising bits as opposed to anything bold and fresh. There’s a gag reel, some deleted scenes (nothing grand), some alternate takes, and behind-the-scenes cast interviews. Again, it’s nice … but haven’t we been here before?
I think the best that can be said about a second-tier Horror/Fantasy flick like The Unhealer is that it feels like it should be an adaptation of a Stephen King story done in the 1980’s … but I was never that big a fan of those earlier adaptations. Still, they had a charm all of their own by taking a story’s central conceit – here, the healer and the young boy’s somewhat twisted abilities to heal and otherwise – and exploiting it to maximum viewer gain. In that regard, Unleader is surprisingly light when it could’ve gone full gore – maybe it should have? – but still makes for a passable 90-minute experience with some Native American Indian occult influence. Plus … Lance Henriksen. Second plus … Natasha Henstridge.
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at Shout Studios provided me with a complimentary Blu-ray of The Unhealer by request for the expressed purposes of completing this review; and their contribution to me in no way, shape, or form influenced my opinion of it.