The Unfamiliar is a psychological horror just in time for Halloween from South African director Henk Pretorius. Locally, the versatile director is best known for his comedy films: Bakgat, Leading Lady and Fanie Fourie’s Lobola. His latest film is like its title, a maiden voyage into the unfamiliar delving into the horror genre. It may seem like a handbrake turn but Pretorius is a passionate filmmaker, who immerses himself completely in every film project.
The Unfamiliar journeys with Izzy Cormack, a British Army doctor who returns home from war only to discover a new “normal”. Haunted by her memories and estranged from her family, she struggles to reintegrate and make sense of her old life. The psychological horror thriller stars a relatively unknown cast in Jemima West, Christopher Dane, Rebecca Hanssen, Rachel Lin and Harry McMillan-Hunt. Built on good key performances from West, Dane and McMillan-Hunt, sharp casting and relative anonymity helps create an immersive quality to this out-of-the-box horror.
You could describe The Unfamiliar as The Babadook meets Pet Sematary. Grappling with family dysfunction, a strained parent-child dynamic and the slow-creeping shadow of evil, it has parallels with The Babadook. The film’s stripped down treatment shows restraint, using great atmosphere and slow-burning tension to escalate suspense rather than resorting to cheap tricks. The simplicity of the titles speak to their effort to give it a modest, minimalist and even elegant feel trying to bridge art and entertainment. Stephen King’s Pet Sematary seems like another influence as a young family find themselves in a region under the grip of ancestral magic and mythology.
The easy path would have been to churn out a pedestrian spectacle but this isn’t any run-of-the-mill horror. This is what separates The Unfamiliar from the glut of middling monster and slasher horrors, demonstrating greater forethought and dexterity. While it adheres to genre conventions, it understands them well enough to subvert expectations quite masterfully. The horror’s tension lies between the tug of Hawaiian “voodoo” and a woman’s attempt to repatriate herself with her family. Cleverly see-sawing between the two, The Unfamiliar toys with illusion and the real outworking of post-traumatic stress disorder.
“You know, most people would’ve just dipped a toe…”
It’s a beautifully composed and entertaining film, allowing its intriguing story to unfurl without drawing too much attention to style. There’s a marked consistency to The Unfamiliar, getting by on good pacing, slow-burning suspense and enough genre cliche footholds to avoid going too art house. While the performances are generally good, Izzy could have used a few more contact points. Her distance is understandable but it would have been more involving for the audience to be able to connect more emotionally with the main protagonist.
The handling of some turning points could have been navigated better with one changeover almost at risk of capsizing the story. Yet, the film oversteps this wobble and just when you think you’ve got it all figured out… it buries you with its surprising depth and originality. There are moments when The Unfamiliar is running on pure inspiration recalling films like Frequency for its creative mix of intrigue, drama and fantasy. Unfortunately, this climactic high point burns out too soon as an attempt to tie up the story ensues. While layered in complexity and nuance, it ultimately becomes overly complicated and too easy for the characters. There are moments when The Unfamiliar soars and then several slip ups that are costly in terms of tonal balance and carefully calibrated suspense.
It’s great that Hawaii’s little known mythology is getting attention and it feels fresh to feature a British family instead of an American one. These choices inform the tone and keep the approach fresh. The filmmakers have kept CGI and special effects to a minimum or incorporated them so perfectly they seem old school, invisible even. The Unfamiliar doesn’t slow-bleed the horror element as is the case with many modern horrors that establish themselves as dramas first. This usually runs the risk of a film burning out too soon but somehow the momentum is maintained. The pacing is so upbeat that it may come as a shock when you’re deep into the third act to think of how much has happened. It would have been better if the story had been transplanted in an environment with more Hawaiian locals or introduced more local characters to give it a more indigenous feel.
The Unfamiliar is flawed but completely outclasses the glut of slick jump cut horrors out there. While it has some strong influences, it’s still fresh enough to entertain and compel both new and seasoned horror audiences with its unpredictable and subversive nature. Most of the difficulties crop up in the tricky third act and attempts at a crowd-pleasing resolution. Yet it’s somewhat redeemed by its artful approach and moments of true inspiration, which reveal glimmers of the horror it could have been.
The bottom line: Entertaining