Eric’s NOLA HFF Review: The Unfamiliar (2020)

ATMOSfx! Woo!
Psssst! Look behind you! Jemima West in The Unfamiliar (2020)
★★★1/2 out of ★★★★★

Follow the bread crumbs in this clever take on what would at first glace feel like a conventional ghost story / psychological horror tale. It ends up spinning things in a way that is surprisingly satisfying and ends up being exactly as the title suggests: Unfamiliar.

Directed by Henk Pretorius

There is something quite satisfying in finding a movie that you initially find predictable manages to spin the expectations on you and give you a few AHA! moments. The Unfamiliar did exactly that.

The story revolves around Elizabeth “Izzy” Cormack (Jemima West) British woman returning home from a tour of duty as a field doctor serving in the War in Afghanistan. Her family is happy to see her upon her return home, but she finds that in the year she has been gone, some things have changed.

Her eldest daughter Emma (Rebecca Hanssen) is firmly in her rebellious teen phase. Her anthropologist husband Ethan (Christopher Dane) has taken a fancy to Polynesian magic and lore, and her middle son Tommy (Harry McMillan-Hunt) is becoming a bit of the whispering weirdo kid. So it’s taking a bit of an adjustment for Izzy to reacclimate herself.

Then, strange things begin to happen in the house. Some fairly garden variety haunted house events like mysterious footsteps, pictures being hung upside down, and straight up hallucinations begin to plague Izzy. Some of these hallucinations have physical manifestations that she can’t explain. (A scene with her fixing the family Mercedes is particularly well done.) Of course, these only happen to Izzy when she’s by herself, so she promptly goes Paranormal Activity and gets some recording devices, which only prove that she’s reacting to things and people that aren’t there.

So we have entered the classic ghost story/psychological trope of “I’m not crazy! Didn’t you see this?” Only Tommy seems to be inclined to consider these things, but he is clearly lost in his own thoughts, and is holding something back. Hmmm.

We get a second familiar big trope, with Izzy going to a psychic medium who has earned her trust, to do a seance to uncover any ghosts. This does NOT produce the results she wanted, and she’s still searching for answers.
Ethan convinces her that a family vacation to Hawaii is just what she could use. Some good old fashioned beach time to relax and get away from all this craziness.

And that is where the story makes a hard right turn into something very interesting. The spooky activities have attached themselves to Izzy on the trip, and we, the audience gets to put the middle of the puzzle together, and it is not the picture that I was expecting. Bravo for that! Henk Pretorius manages to have set the dominos up just right (there is actually a great little domino sequence in the film) and you understand all of what happens before. Granted, there is some exposition required, but it isn’t ham fisted.

Good ghost story mysteries are best when there is enough evidence that you realize that you could have pieced together the situation, and that it is not a completely preposterous reveal. Pretorius, and writer Jennifer Nicole Stang have delivered a story that has just the right amount of subtle hints and the twist is, while not monumental, quite satisfying. Though it is NOT the same reveal, the story took some lessons from the 2001 classic The Others.

Jemima West is given all of the typical responsibilities of a male lead in this movie. She is a woman of ACTION. When it is time to rescue her kids, it is Izzy who takes the lead. When it comes to making a firm stand, it is Izzy who sets the tone. She is the one returning home from battle. She’s the one fixing the car. And, most importantly for a film like this, you need her to anchor the impression that she is struggling with the crazy-or-not dilemma. And she pulls it off. It is a great showcase for her acting talent.

Acting newcomer Harry McMillan-Hunt gets most of the other juicy scenes. He is doe eyed and one of those curiously troubled kids. At first his behavior is a bit annoying but that behavior is key to the unraveling of the mystery, and therefore, in my book he sold the role well. Christopher Dane does a fine job as the supportive husband, who is concerned about Izzy’s mental state and harbors doubts about her claims of ghostly encounters. He’s earnest and charismatic, but this really is a supporting role.

The other characters are a bit hit and miss.

Emma goes from being a completely forgotten piece of the family, and then a critical part of the story, and that uneven use of her character does not serve the plot well. There are two erstwhile magic users in the film. And, unfortunately they come off rather one note. The mentalist psychic comes off untrustworthy and a bit slippery, and the Hawaiian medicine woman, Auntie Mae (Rachel Lin) feels like a throwback to the “magic ethnic other” that often get foisted on Native American medicine men or voodoo witch doctors.

There is also a baby, Lily, who is really only used as a prop for dangerous things. I can’t imagine a household where the baby gets so forgotten, as they will tend to dominate a family’s life, and there are times where you have to go… “Oh yeah, there’s a baby! I wonder what’s up with the baby.” But, by the end, you definitely know what’s up.

The art direction varies fairly dramatically. There are some shots that are really interesting, particularly around a split shot of a magical lagoon above and below the water. But I wasn’t entirely convinced that we were in Hawaii. There is a bit of a soundstage feel to some of the shots. I also was not a fan of the way that the audio utilized the jump scares. Often, the timing felt awkward. This very much has the PG-13 loud bang forced jump scare routine. The film is not rated, but would certainly be PG-13, with some traumatic ritual scenes and non-gory violence.

Still, the story is solid and it makes for an engaging spooky mystery. Izzy is a fantastic lead character, and McMillan-Hunt is a young actor to keep an eye on. This film will be playing later TODAY (Friday 9/25/2020) at the NOLA Horror Film Festival. Tickets are available, and this is a film worth paying admission for. You can get tickets now!

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