U.K. chiller The Unfamiliar treads some recognizable ground but balances that out by placing its characters in an unusual setting, that being in the world of the Hawaiian occult.
Military doctor Elizabeth “Izzy” Cormack (Jemima West) has just returned from a tour of duty during which she was forced into combat. She is having a difficult time reconnecting with her distant teenage stepdaughter Emma (Rebecca Hanssen), preteen son Tommy (Harry McMillan-Hunt), her professor/writer husband Ethan (Christopher Dane), and their baby Lilly (Beatrice Woolrych). To make matters worse, Izzy starts seeing and being part of weird occurrences, and when she tries to record these events as proof that they aren’t part of her PTSD, naturally there is no video evidence.
Meanwhile, Ethan oddly wants to abandon his recent book research about the myths and customs — some of them dealing with the occult — of Hawaii in favor of writing children’s books. Tommy is acting strangely, including performing Hawaiian supernatural rituals. Ethan eventually talks Izzy into going along on a family trip to Hawaii to destress, and although the film has already set up a solid sense of dread and doled out a good deal of “ Is it paranormal or is it all in Izzy’s head?” events, this is when the horror goes into full gear.
Director Henk Pretorius’s first fear-fare feature looks terrific, with splendid cinematography — including some crisp underwater sequences — from Pete Wallington. Pretorius, who cowrote the screenplay with Jennifer Nicole Stang, paces things a bit on the fast-moving side but balances the family drama and fright-fare elements quite well. The Unfamiliar is no slow-burner, as Izzy’s descent into terror and eeriness begins early and rarely lets up. West and McMillan-Hunt give standout performances, and the rest of the cast is fine, too, with Dane and Hanssen having an opportunity to stretch as the film progresses.
Though The Unfamiliar hits on many a horror movie trope, including loud music cues at jump scare moments and other instances that would constitute spoilers, it is well made, and offers enough originality and quality direction and performances to warrant a watch.
The Unfamiliar will screen as part of NOLA Horror Film Fest’s virtual version, which runs from September 25th through the 27th. For more information, visit https://nolahff.com/.