THE UNHEALER follows a plot (which appears so frequently throughout films) that can essentially be likened to the Ugly Duckling or even Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. A young person finds himself excluded because of their differences, but eventually a new skill or ability comes to light and the bullies must rethink their previous judgment. Used throughout horror, teen dramas, and even superhero stories, the weakling turned badass storyline fulfills the dream of anyone who’s ever been picked on. However, since we first became aware of this trope in childhood, do we really need another film following this predictable formula? Writers J. Shawn Harris and Keven E. Moore, along with director Martin Guigui bring us the movie THE UNHEALER in which bullied Kelly gains a supernatural power which not only prevents him from feeling pain, but he can also project that pain on to another person.
At the center of this teen drama, we meet Kelly (Elijah Nelson). He’s smaller than the other boys, doesn’t wear designer clothes, and has messy hair. But what really makes him bully-bait is that Kelly has pica: a rare eating disorder that makes him want to consume non-food items. Styrofoam, pencils, and paper all become tasty morsels for Kelly, which earns him the name Trash Boy. Pica does not appear frequently in films, with Swallow (2019) being an exception. With such a strange characteristic, surprisingly the plot does not revolve around Kelly’s obsession with munching on everything he sees. Instead, the boy begins to fight back because of a mysterious new talent. Incapable of getting hurt, Kelly now seeks out every person who ever wronged him with the intention of seeking the ultimate revenge.
Unfortunately, THE UNHEALER uses the horribly outdated Ancient Indian Burial Ground trope, and this inappropriate use of settler/colonialism becomes abused with the purpose of granting power to a Christian charlatan. Lance Henriksen plays Pflueger, the slimiest most ruthless “Reverend” the town has ever seen, and he gained his following through disingenuously marketing himself as a faith healer. He does possess a genuine healing capability, but his miracles do not come from his supposed connection to Jesus. Instead, his powers come from a spiritual form of grave robbing as he unrightfully stole an ability that belongs to the Native people. Local man, Red Elk (Branscombe Richmond) serves as a harbinger and exposition revealer as he explains the story of the healing ability, but also the dangers connected to it. But Pflueger ignores the warnings and believes himself untouchable. That is until he meets Kelly. Apparently, pica also gives the boy Rogue-like powers which allow him to unintentionally drain powers from other people.
Even though THE UNHEALER wrongly contributes mystical evils to Native Americans, the story approaches the topic in a different way from previous films. Instead of evil spirits being the villain and punishing some unsuspecting white family, the power represents grave robbery and the theft of Native culture. Pflueger is warned he needs to return what he stole, but instead, he passes the power onto the next generation of white people in the name of Jesus. Kelly does not realize he possesses stolen Native property, but that does not make the theft any less wrong. So, while the older generation of Native Americans (represented by Red Elk) could not protect what rightfully belonged to the Natives, the next generation (represented in the sheriff played by Adam Beach) now needs to get back what was stolen from his ancestors.
The supporting cast of Beach, Richmond, and Henriksen give strong performances and sometimes provide more compelling storylines than the lead character. Guigui comes close to making some compelling commentary on the theft of Native culture, but chooses a more cliché ending instead. And even for those not looking for a whole lot of subtext in their horror, the tiresome inclusion of magical Native abilities will still limit placing this teen horror higher than a mediocre film at best.
Martin Guigui’s THE UNHEALER is currently available on Blu-ray, DVD and a number of digital and cable platforms, including iTunes, Amazon Video, Vudu, Comcast, Spectrum, and Cox.