11th Oct2020

Grimmfest 2020: ‘The Unhealer’ Review

by Phil Wheat

Stars: Elijah Nelson, Lance Henriksen, Natasha Henstridge, Adam Beach, Chris Browning, Branscombe Richmond | Written by J. Shawn Harris, Kevin E. Moore | Directed by Martin Guigui

In the past I’ve often talked about how I spent my teenage years basically living in the local video shop, renting title after title – mainly from the pound a week section. Now that particular section of my local video store consisted mainly of older titles that the majority of people weren’t renting any more, most of which were from the late 80s/early 90s. So I had a plethora of films that many now consider ‘classics’ to watch… I say this not to brag but to give some context to why I adore The Unhealer so much… It feels like it stepped directly out of that era of filmmaking. In the best way possible.

The Unhealer is one of the many “teenager gets revenge on their bullies” films that have proliferated the genre for years. This one takes, as usual, a supernatural bent – feeling very much like a brethren of the likes of 976-Evil and Carrie – though it leans stylistically to the former yet thematically it’s very much in the same vein as the latter. However The Unhealer has a much more interesting premise than other such genre fare.

The film tells the story of Kelly (Elijah Nelson), a teenager with an bizarre eating disorder that has earned him the nickname “trash boy” from the local bullies. When his disorder threatens his health and the local doctor can’t help beyond giving Kelly iron pills and telling him to not eat everything he sees, Kelly’s mother (superbly played by Natasha Henstridge) finds help from faith healer “Reverend” Pflueger (Lance Henriksen). Only Pflueger is less faith healer and more conman – having stole supernatural Shaman powers. Powers that he accidentally bestows on Kelly when he tries to heal him. When Kelly’s bullies pull a prank that kills someone he loves, he uses his powers for revenge and goes on a bloody rampage to settle the score.

And it’s Kelly’s powers that makes The Unhealer stand out from the revenge-horror pack. Rather than being some vengeful force, Kelly’s powers feel – at first – more like poetic justice. You see when Kelly gets hurt, that pain and violence is reflected back on to the perpetrator… Leaving Kelly unscathed but his bullies in a world of hurt!

That hurt soon becomes much more as Kelly gets more and more violent and more and more vengeful as the film progresses; with Elijah Nelson giving a superb performance throughout. Nelson’s performance, and that of Natasha Henstridge, as his mother Bernice, are central to keeping this film grounded – even with the supernatural premise. The duos relationship is wonderful. Bernice’s intense love for her son, that maternal instinct to protect Kelly, is the antithesis of the typical parent in genre fare such as this. You go on a journey with her – from feeling sorry for Kelly and thus elated when he receives the powers that “cure” his eating disorder; to the fear of knowing that should Kelly’s secret get out he’ll become some sideshow freak once again. It’s the relationship, and the damage caused to it by other townsfolk, that sparks Kelly’s rampage. And you completely believe it and the course the parental bond takes Kelly throughout the film.

Speaking of rampage. Whilst Kelly’s powers start out as something of a protection for him, The Unhealer goes down the typical route of “drunk on power” for our protagonist Kelly. He realises he’s ‘invincible’ and at first that makes him feel normal, like he can be a normal teenager, with normal relationships. But of course he’s still “trash boy” to all the school bullies; nothing can ever be normal. Which is when Kelly’s relationship with his own power gets out of control. And Elijah Nelson’s performance tells that character arc fantastically. His transformation from weak, ill, teen to power-crazed, revenge-seeking killer is a joy to watch and the real emotional core of this film.

But this is a horror film So there has to be horror right? Well yes, and The Unhealer delivers in spades. Kelly’s revenge on his bullies gets pretty dark, and pretty gory at times too! But there’s also some humour to the horror – Kelly discovers he can imbibe a piece of his bullies clothing and then exact revenge on himself and it will transfer to his victim, eventually leaving Kelly unscathed. That discovery leads to a particularly dark joke as Kelly gets revenge on a football playing bully by drilling his own knees out – thus destroying the knees of his bully and his football career – but the attack is interrupted, leaving the drill, stuck in Kelly’s knee, to spin round and round whilst he argues the morality of what he’s doing. It’s a dark moment lightened by a brief flash of black comedy.

And that’s The Unhealer to a tee. Truly dark subject matter, lightened by not only humour but by the performances of its cast; performances that make the supernatural seem natural, grounding this film not only in reality but on the right side of morality. No-one is in the right here, everything is shades of grey. Delivering a film that, in an ideal world (and this film shows us the world is NOT ideal), would be hailed as a modern-day classic. Because it is. It could also be the start of a fantastic new horror franchise too…

***** 5/5

The Unhealer screened as part of this years Grimmfest virtual festival on Friday October 9th.

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