By Ali Moosavi.
Ever since the success and huge profit margin of films such as Halloween, Friday the 13th, etc., there has been a deluge of horror films, producing more franchises than McDonalds. They tend to follow one of a number of well-established templates; a mad, seemingly indestructible killer on the loose (Halloween, Friday the 13th), a supernatural phenomenon (The Exorcist, The Amityville Horror), or the unseen or little seen murderous creature (Predator, Alien). They all also share heavy reliance on sound effects which, with Dolby, Atmos, etc, sound blurting out of loudspeakers all over the theatres, increase the shock value. The Unfamiliar is a fairly rare British horror movie that belongs to the supernatural phenomenon group.
The opening scene of the film shows a woman strapped onto a table while a man and a young woman are cooking some black liquidity thing and blurting out some mumbo jumbo. We are then flash backed seven days and follow the events on a day by day basis to arrive at the first scene.
The family at the centre of the story are positively not your typical British family. The wife, Izzy (Jemima West) is a doctor, just back from a tour of duty in Afghanistan; as her husband tells her, “you left as a doctor, came back as a soldier”. She even has battle scars on her belly, about which her husband comments, “these show that you faced the enemy and not run away from them!” She is also a pretty good car mechanic, plays the piano and is good looking to boot (was she on Tinder?!). The husband, Ethan (Christopher Dore) meanwhile, is an Oxford professor, specializing in Polynesian history, who also writes children’s books!
There are strange goings on in their household, or at least that’s what appears to Izzy. Are there really strange things happening to their teenage daughter and young son as Izzy visualizes or could it be due to PTSD as her husband suspects? There is large black Hawaiian doll on which the camera lingers suspiciously. In desperation, Izzy enlists a couple of self-claimed exorcists who tell her, “there’s something ominous surrounding your home” and come armed with night vision cameras as they inform Izzy these can detect the “ectoplasm that spirits leave behind!”
Ethan decides the best thing for them is to take short break in Hawaii. So, off they go (Surrey and Essex countryside doubling very poorly and unconvincingly for Hawaii). It is here that I felt the film went completely off the rails and we departed the world of supernatural for the realm of ridiculousness. A Hawaiian lady appears in this section who wants to cleanse the family and their house (not the sort of cleansing you do with bleach). Meanwhile, the professor husband has not grown tired of admiring the fighting spirit of his wife, (“the world needs doctors like you, doctors who become soldiers”). There is some mumbo jumbo reciting by the husband, the daughter and the Hawaiian lady. Izzy gets covered by what looks like chocolate syrup. There’s ritual dancing and what looks like baptizing. These however fail to make any sense and some script re-writing would have been advised for this section.
Henk Pretorius, the South African born director of the film, does try to compensate for the lapses in the script by coming up with some interesting visuals, combining B&W with colour and finding interesting angles for the camera. However, up to the Hawaii section, The Unfamiliar is a reasonably engaging horror film, but unfortunately the damage done after that is difficult to repair. The customary last image of the film hinting of a sequel is more in hope than anticipation.
Ali Moosavi has worked in documentary television and has written for Film Magazine (Iran), Cine-Eye (London), and Film International (Sweden). He contributed to the second volume of The Directory of World Cinema: Iran (Intellect, 2015).