PLOT: An British Army doctor returns home from war to find that things have gotten very strange around her household. Is her family being targeted by a supernatural force, or is the problem entirely in her head?
REVIEW: Director Henk Pretorius's horror film THE UNFAMILIAR (WATCH IT HERE) is presented as if it was intended to have viewers wondering, "Is the problem here supernatural or psychological?" It doesn't quite work that way, though. I don't think many viewers will be convinced that the strange events in the movie are only in the lead character's mind, especially since the movie starts with one of those spoilery, flash forward types of openings that gives a glimpse at a sort of exorcism that's going to be performed seven days from the proper beginning of the story.
The lead character is British Army doctor Izzy Cormack (played by Jemima West), who returns home from war with scars that are both physical and mental – the front of her body is covered with scars left by wounds she received, and she's also suffering from PTSD. It's a happy occasion when she's reunited with her husband Ethan (Christopher Dane), teenage stepdaughter Emma (Rebecca Hanssen), young son Tommy (Harry McMillan-Hunt), and infant daughter Lilly (Beatrice Woolrych), but it isn't long before she begins to realize that things have gotten very strange around the Cormack household in her absence. Ethan has gained knowledge about magic rituals while researching a book on Hawaii, he has a tiki totem set up in Lilly's room, there's chanting going on, Tommy is talking about demons possessing people and has a two-way radio that he says allows him to talk to his father while he's asleep. Izzy is plagued by nightmares, finds that items around the house have been disturbed, has frightening experiences that seem to be hallucinations. Ethan pushes the idea that her PTSD is to blame, while Izzy calls in a pair of paranormal investigators.
Even though Pretorius and co-writer Jennifer Nicole Stang added the veteran/PTSD aspect into the mix as a way to make the movie seem unique, a lot of THE UNFAMILIAR is actually very familiar. The paranormal activity, the scenes of Izzy wandering around a dark house during the build-up to a jump scare, the séance, the exorcism, we've seen versions of all of this before. Things get weirder about halfway through the movie, but even then it's something familiar, as the demon-inhabited dimension someone enters is very reminiscent of The Further, as seen in the INSIDIOUS movies.
THE UNFAMILIAR dilutes its interesting ideas by mixing them with a lot of supernatural horror movie clichés, but that wasn't my main issue with it. I like INSIDIOUS and THE CONJURING, I can like movies that feel similar to them. The problem here was, it was never effective at making me wonder if Izzy was imagining these things or not, and I found the execution of the concept to be quite dull and unengaging. The movie is only 89 minutes long, but for me it was a slog to sit through, as scenes felt like they dragged on and on. Viewers might expect things to get more exciting in the second half, but that's when the movie became less interesting to me, despite the presence of Rachel Lin as kahuna Auntie Mae, who sets out to fix the mess Izzy finds herself in.
The movie does manage to subvert expectations at least once along the way, and there are some cool things in it. The acting is good, with McMillan-Hunt being particularly impressive with the way he handled some of the moments and lines he was given. That includes the unexpected way in which we're told about the event at the center of Izzy's PTSD. But THE UNFAMILIAR was underwhelming overall, and a lot of the positivity I felt toward it really took a hit when I saw how silly the final shot was.
Ending up far short of its potential, this movie is only recommended to supernatural horror fans who are desperate for some new interdimensional demon action.
THE UNFAMILIAR is being released in North America by Vertical Entertainment on August 21st, with Lionsgate UK planning to release the film in the United Kingdom on September 11th and a release in South Africa, courtesy of Filmfinity, to follow on October 28th.