Review by Craig Draheim
Director: Henk Pretorius
Writer: Henk Pretorius, Jennifer Nicole Stang
Starring: Jemima West, Christopher Dane, Harry McMillan-Hunt, Rebecca Hanssen
Possession and haunted house movies have earned a reputation for some by using tropes to create a paint-by-numbers story. For every one within the subgenre that becomes a prime example of what can be accomplished, there are 20+ others that feel like a carbon copy because someone wants to ride that money/fame train. However, my pessimism can be diminished despite a movie utilizing these generic tropes if the filmmaker is able to put their own artistic vision to make something truly personal. This is where The Unfamiliar shines.
The film tells the story of a British soldier who comes home after her tour to find something is off with her family. Is there something really or is it purely the trauma of battle that she has yet to confront? I’m trying to avoid spoilers since there are plenty of twists and turns within the movie, but long before we shift locations from their family home in England to a rental in Hawaii, the answer to that question will become obvious. That is not necessarily a bad thing, as this is where Pretorius’ use of tropes come in handy, diverging the path enough to be both familiar and unexpected. Significant elements of this are using Hawaiian-based mythos instead of resorting to the stale Judeo-Christian themes, the veteran character as the mother, being a more “modern” family (she’s the stepmother to one of the children but seen as the mother figure), incorporating an almost body snatcher-device, change of location and style halfway through, and a slew of other things. While it might not seem drastic in written form, these little differences make The Unfamiliar fresh and kept me engaged throughout.
With that all being said, while I acknowledge the toying with of common tropes set the film apart from your standard possession or haunted house movie, the use of these tropes themselves didn’t allow The Unfamiliar to push those creative limits that I believe it could’ve. However, I don’t feel limit-pushing was ever the intention but instead it was just to tell a spooky story. To add onto that issue, with so much attention on a “changing it up” mentality, a lot of the potential for expanding upon the incredibly interesting mythos and building tension get lost. It’s not really as scary or dread inducing as it could be if the script went through another draft of fine tuning, especially for modern audiences. The best way to describe this is to paraphrase Ginger Nuts of Horror founder, Jim Mcleod in that it feels very classic British horror. There is a heavy focus on atmosphere and tension but there’s not as much urgency in the story that we’ve become accustomed to, despite many elements within the plot calling for that. This is apparent when an infant is in grave danger and the characters take several beats to react. Those parts of the movie you cannot tell if they are purposeful, stylistic choice or clunky editing. I feel like saying it’s the latter because there’s several scenes where the cut is a beat too early (before the sentence is finished) or a beat too late. Those are the crucial moments that took me out of the movie.
Overall, this is a great calling card for Pretorius that showcases a powerful voice. It builds an interesting mythology, has moments of tension, action, strong character development, is marketable, and has plenty other qualities that can be checked off in the boxes for producers to know he could handle something with a larger budget. Is it fine-tuning of the script that suffers from too many ideas to allow moments to truly shine? Is it fine-tuning in post-production to really provide clean final piece? Whatever the case may be, my pessimism was not diminished entirely, and some of these challenges appeared to hinder The Unfamiliar from being the movie it deserves to be.
3 out of 5
Check out Craig's exclusive interviews with the cast and crew of "The Unfamiliar" below