By SHAWN MACOMBER
Starring Jemima West, Christopher Dane and Harry McMillan-Hunt
Directed by Henk Pretorious
Written by Jennifer Nicole Stang and Henk Pretorius
Combat is a one-way door—once you go through, you can’t go back.
I first heard this maxim from a soldier while embedded with U.S. forces just outside Samarra during a late-2005 trip to Iraq to cover that teetering nation’s first post-invasion parliamentary elections. At the time, I thought the phrase was unique to him, but soon it, or some slight variation, was relayed to me by a half-dozen other soldiers. Even in the fraught moment, many seemed to understand that they were experiencing something profound and traumatic that would nevertheless be inscrutable to those back home.
I bring this up because the creepy, affecting new supernatural psychothriller THE UNFAMILIAR centers on a woman who has walked through that door–and found an increasingly sinister reality and family on the other side from which she is heartbreakingly, terrifyingly estranged.
As THE UNFAMILIAR opens, British Army doctor Elizabeth “Izzy” Cormack (Jemima West) has done her tour and is en route to her family, skating along the edge between peaceful relief and nervousness, eager for the reunion and healing to begin. Unfortunately for her—as we the audience are already well aware, thanks to a short, disorienting flash-forward featuring two young children and an indigenous spiritualist (Rachel Lin) involved in what appears to be a DIY home exorcism—some yet-undefined malevolence awaits. Soon enough, we’ve got a haunted-house main platter with fixings of possession, folk, weird-kid and electronic voice phenomenon horror. Which is to say, stuff is moving on its own, her somewhat aloof husband (Christopher Dane) and stepdaughter (Rebecca Hanssen) suddenly seem obsessed with making Polynesian ritual magic a part of her toddler’s life, her timid young son (Harry McMillan-Hunt) insists he’s receiving urgent radio broadcasts from the other side, she’s ambushed by terrifying visions and psychic mediums are hitting her up unbidden to say they can just sense she needs their help.
Despite the creeping-dread pace, there’s quite a bit of busyness in the unfolding plot. Sometimes this works to the film’s narrative advantage and sometimes…less so. The gears of ambition grind a bit at moments. The key here, however, is that to peg THE UNFAMILIAR, as some critics have, as a film that merely asks, thumb firmly on the genre end of the scale, whether these dark entities are actual demons or ghosts of war manifesting through PTSD-induced hallucinations is a fairly substantial misreading. First of all, it isn’t an either/or proposition. And second, by beginning the film with that aforementioned flash-forward and some undeniable-as-the-chair-stacking-in-POLTERGEIST sequences, we are well aware that a supernatural adversary is afoot. THE UNFAMILIAR is more about the things that can follow you through that “one-way door”–about how having your center unbalanced from trauma can leave you vulnerable at the worst possible moments, and about how the distance between yourself and those you love and trust can haunt and torment you as effectively as any phantasm.
To that end, West deserves real credit for portraying Izzy’s uncertainty and inner conflict with such nuance and naturalism. She rises to the occasion of being the still-waters-run-deep heart and soul of the film. Dane and Hanssen are also effective at shifting from subtle menace to caring to exasperation without giving up the game. McMillan-Hunt is a great starry-eyed bridge between the two, attempting to navigate and survive the worlds of adult authority and ghostly mystery despite having a grounding in neither.
The end of THE UNFAMILIAR does feel a bit rushed and uneven. A little more background on Lin’s spiritualist might’ve made a big difference in how the audience is able to engage with and understand some of the more esoteric concepts the film explicates toward the end. Still, this shortcoming is mediated somewhat by the fact that chaos is the core here, and writer/director Henk Pretorius and his co-scripter Jennifer Nicole Stang deserve credit for this mashup of human and supernatural dramas, one deeply intertwined in the other, fueling life, love and horror in complicated ways we can ponder but never truly understand.