The Unhealer [Grimmfest] Review: I’m Rubber You’re Glue
Televangelists and faith healers have been playing the money game for a long time, but what if one of them was actually the real deal and had ‘The Magic Touch’?
After absorbing power from a protected ancient Indian burial ground a seedy opportunist, Pflueger (Lance Henriksen), ends us with the power of healing, which he gleefully exploits. He sets up shop and quickly begins fixing the ailments of the townsfolk, but not before they donate to the healing jar, you know, just to power up his hands. This is where Bernice (Natasha Henstridge) finds him and invites him home to help heal her son Kelly (Elijah Nelson).
Kelly is an angst-ridden tormented teen who suffers from pica, a compulsive eating disorder in which people eat nonfood items, which grants him the unpleasant nickname ‘Trash Boy’ from his typical high school jock bullies. This eating disorder is causing Kelly some severe health problems and traditional doctors can’t seem to help, suggesting psychological care instead. Pflueger however, is anything but a traditional doctor, he is a crook, a drunk, a binge cocaine user and a generally unpleasant man, but he has the ability to heal the boy. Unfortunately his bad habits cause issues during the healing ceremony and he ends up transferring ‘The Medicine’ to Kelly and ultimately causing his own undignified demise.
Now Kelly is a superpowered teen who begins to build his confidence and stand up for himself. Kelly’s newfound powers allow him to feel no pain and to project any action upon him to be felt by the assailant. It’s the ultimate ‘stop hitting yourself’ ability as now every punch he takes is felt by the person enacting it, forcefully teaching them to ‘do unto others as you would have them do unto you’. This is furthered by Kelly’s eating disorder as he can also link himself to people by consuming something of theirs (shown hilariously as he rummages through a gym bag looking for something other than a sweaty sock or jock strap to eat) and then hurting himself to project the pain onto them.
“The Unhealer has fun with the premise and offers some shockingly disturbing moments of gore and macabre humour.”
Throughout the film Kelly is pushed to further extremes, treading the line between righteous hero, vengeance driven anti-hero and all out supervillain. His abilities are a blessing and a curse, giving him power and confidence but ultimately leading to a tragedy in his life that pushes him over the limit. His powers are now being used to exact revenge on the bullies that have tormented him for years. This results in some great moments of gross out carnage, including some face melting goodness and a head exploding car crash that are sure to keep the gore hounds happy.
There’s a lot being explored in The Unhealer with bullying and cultural appropriation, specifically the taking of indigenous artefacts, being two of the main themes. Each one has a lot of potential and interesting points to be made, especially under the horror genre. Unfortunately they don’t get full room to breathe, this could be because of budget restraints, or it could be the film was trying to overreach a little. The bullies in this film are beyond stereotypes, with over the top cruelty and ridiculous or contrived dialogue at points. There’s something so melodramatic about their portrayal that it’s almost as if an angsty teenager actually wrote this.
Then there’s the cultural aspects that could have been scrutinised so much more. Red Elk (Branscombe Richmond), the protector of the burial site, and Sheriff Adler (Adam Beach) are strong portrayals of Native Americans and the director clearly wanted to be sensitive to the culture and show how it is taken for personal gain, something Pflueger is warned about repeatedly. However, this seems to get lost in the teenage narrative and becomes a secondary idea that doesn’t get as much screen time as it maybe could.
Horror veterans Henriksen and Henstridge really carry the first act of the film. Pflueger is perfectly seedy, a man with too many vices and the ego to compare himself to Jesus. He brings some brilliantly dark comedy to the proceedings and it would have been welcomed to have him stay on the screen for longer. Bernice is played with love, her relationship with her son is sweet and believable as a single mother. Henstridge is the heart of the proceedings, no wonder Kelly thinks everyone has a crush on her. The younger cast are okay, there’s some tripping points that were a little uncomfortable to watch, but nothing bad enough to pull focus from the film. Everyone embraces the energy of The Unhealer, it’s silly, but it’s fun silly, which horror is allowed to be.
The Unhealer has definite Stephen King vibes, with an element of timelessness in its creation that seems very popular in horror right now. A downtrodden outcast gaining power and causing destruction is nothing new, and has been done better in quite a few films, but The Unhealer has fun with the premise and offers some shockingly disturbing moments of gore and macabre humour. It plays with our alliances and allows us to take pleasure in Kelly’s vengeance but also see the darkness in the path he is on. There’s a strange greatness under the surface and the combination of action, humour and splatter makes it an enjoyable watch.
The ending teases a sequel (something the director mentioned wanting to do in the Q&A segment after the screening) that could definitely expand upon this premise and offer the film a chance to tackle it’s themes in a more indepth way than it was able to in this entry. Hopefully there’s a chance for more superpowered shenanigans with a different ‘healer’ at the wheel.