Arriving back in Britain from the horrors of the Afghan war, an Army doctor finds it difficult to adjust to domestic life and her previous identity as a mother and wife. Soon strange and disturbing phenomena are disrupting their family home; alarming husband Ethan, rebellious teenage daughter Emma, and serious young son Tommy. Elizabeth is initially unsure whether her vivid hallucinations are a reflection of her PTSD or evidence of a hostile supernatural force threatening them all.
Director and co-writer Henk Pretorius’ confused and confusing scarefest is an amalgam of a number of very familiar tropes: domestic horror; psychological dissociation; body substitution; demonic possession; and exotic folklore. In fact, Pretorius (and fellow scribe Jennifer Nicole Stang) are determined to cram as many ideas and themes into the screenplay as possible. With a script that’s fit-to-burst, there’s little time to focus on any one idea before attention shifts to the next.
Some of the individual set-pieces in The Unfamiliar are rendered on screen fairly well, and several of the misdirects in the film’s opening sections are promising. It’s when the drama switches to the family’s Hawaiian holiday (and research trip for Ethan) that things start to come apart. Peril aplenty unfolds, but it soon becomes almost impossible to follow what’s going on, as threats and explanations tumble into view one after another, only to disappear just as quickly. This disorderly chain of “bad things” will leave many viewers scratching their heads.
It’s clear from everything on screen that the production never left UK shores. Cash-strapped indie filmmakers can be forgiven such all-we-can-manage substitution if there’s an attempt to reflect “other places” with a bit of care and a nod to authenticity. But events reach their lowest ebb when native Polynesian culture gets pulled into the plot simply to act as a cipher for dark mysticism. This is tone-deaf scriptwriting. It leads to a dubious character arc for one Hawaiian resident - the mystic Auntie Mae (which is no reflection on Rachel Lin’s performance in the role).
Despite the evident limitations of budget, cinematographer Pete Wallington frames the picture well, while Pretorius proves that he’s capable of directing horror sequences. As frayed medic Elizabeth, Jemima West is suitably bewildered and determined; while Harry McMillan-Hunt delivers a convincing performance in what’s a complex role as her young son. But the malevolence of The Unfamiliar remains too muddled and unfocused to truly disturb.
Release Date: January 25th (DVD, VOD)