The Unfamiliar, 2020.
Directed by Henk Pretorius.
Starring Jemima West, Christopher Dane, Harry McMillan-Hunt, Rebecca Hanssen, Rachel Lin and Ben Lee.
A mother returns home from military service to find that her son has changed significantly and her husband is discussing an unusual change of career.
British horror The Unfamiliar begins with an efficiently creepy prologue, in which the lifeless body of a woman is tied to a table and appears to be the central part of some sort of sacrificial ritual. When the film returns to that scene an hour later, it has a completely different complexion. Sadly, that neat reversal is just about the only thing Henk Pretorius’s supernatural horror does well. Elsewhere, it alternates between being a slightly dull melange of clichés and a wildly misjudged depiction of a marginalised culture.
Seven days before the prologue, battlefield medic Izzy (Jemima West) returns from Afghanistan wearing many new scars, both physical and mental – she’s seeing a therapist who specialises in PTSD. Her writer husband Ethan (Christopher Dane) has recently returned from taking their three kids to Hawaii, where he’s researching artefacts from local cultures, but has decided to change tack and write children’s books. Meanwhile, their teenage daughter Emma (Rebecca Hanssen) seems to be absent most of the time and her brother Tommy (Harry McMillan-Hunt) is channelling the overly mannered creepiness of the kids in Jack Clayton’s The Innocents.
The movie’s evocation of Clayton only serves to illustrate how unimaginative The Unfamiliar is in comparison to that movie and other genre classics. The first half of the movie is an oddly stilted domestic drama, while the second changes tack and dives headlong into a mess of supernatural shenanigans that makes the nonsensical third act of Insidious look like a tightly-plotted masterpiece.
It would be easy to blame the stilted feel of the first hour on the actors, and there’s certainly something about their performances that doesn’t quite click, but the script – co-written by director Pretorius and Jennifer Nicole Stang – has a lot to answer for. The scenes between Izzy and Ethan are awkwardly written and drenched in romantic cliché, with him the archetypal struggling writer and her the blandly heroic military veteran. Harry McMillan-Hunt as the inscrutable Tommy is a rare bright spot. As the spookiness intensifies and a straight from central casting paranormal investigator (Ben Lee) joins the fray, things don’t get any better.
But the movie takes a real turn for the terrible when the action shifts from cosy suburban England to Hawaii. There’s an early scene in which Ethan discusses his fear of exploiting Hawaiian people and their culture, but this concern doesn’t seem to apply to this film. The only prominent local character is kahuna Mae (Rachel Lin) and to say her story unfolds in problematic directions would be a disservice to the disbelief with which I greeted one climactic development.
In many ways, it’s a microcosm for the failings of The Unfamiliar from start to finish. It attempts to subvert and play with the myriad clichés of supernatural horror, but ends up tripping over its feet and becoming tangled in those very same clichés. Even at just shy of 90 minutes, this feels like a tale stretching every sinew to reach feature-length and, although there are some interesting ideas at play, there’s not even close to enough invention to pry the movie from the sludge.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ / Movie: ★ ★
Tom Beasley is a freelance film journalist and wrestling fan. Follow him on Twitter via @TomJBeasley for movie opinions, wrestling stuff and puns.