Director Henk Pretorius’s British horror film, “The Unfamiliar,” is about Elizabeth, a British army doctor (Jemima West) who returns to her family after experiencing the trauma of war.
Once at home with her husband (Christopher Dane) and two children, she immediately begins seeing and hearing demonic visions. Are these hallucinations or a result of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder?
Initially, it seems “The Unfamiliar” wants to be “Jacob’s Ladder” from a female perspective. We’re meant to ponder if Elizabeth is hallucinating or actually seeing ghosts. When the big plot twist arrives, it doesn’t make any sense (thinking about the plot afterwards is as maddening as trying to remember where you parked your car at the mall a year ago).
Far more problematic is the reveal that her husband, a college professor, has a room full of scary pictures depicting figures of Hawaiian spirituality. He’s doing research and, wouldn’t you know it, has a tiki figure he obtained from Hawaii that makes Elizabeth uncomfortable. Later, the whole family takes a vacation to Hawaii and, instead of a calming getaway, Elizabeth’s visions only get worse.
For those keeping score, we get Hawaiian demons, the use of Night Marchers, an Aloha shirt- wearing villain and a tiki totem pole that transported the evil in the first place. The most offensive touch is how the movie aims to make the Hawaiian language, particularly through chanting, sound scary.
Are you kidding me with this crap?
Apparently, the creators of “The Unfamiliar” are unfamiliar with concepts like hurtful stereotypes of Polynesian tradition that shouldn’t exist in a movie made this century. The way this movie willingly and mindlessly portrays Hawaiian culture and mysticism as fodder for jump scares is akin to how Africans were once depicted as wide-eyed cannibals in black and white B-movies.
Contempt doesn’t even begin to describe it. The one character on hand to represent a “Hawaiian” is Auntie May, a spiritualist with precious little development (played by a what-are-you-doing-in-this Rachel Lin).
To be clear -- this British production, with its knowledge of modern-day Hawaii clearly cribbed from “Blue Hawaii” and a half-read Wikipedia entry, was, according to the end credits, “Filmed on location in and around Surrey, Kent, Essex & London, United Kingdom.”
The screenplay was written by director Henk Pretorius and Jennifer Nicole Stang. It seems they were attempting an “Insidious” knockoff (complete with a slow, de-colorized walk into the spirit world and a steal of its most famous image).
It’s also vile, with a few scenes where characters are screaming while being doused in boiling hot goo.
The genre cliches are intact: jump scares (don’t step on that squeaky child’s toy!), web cam footage, a friendly psychic, ominous title cards (“DAY 2”) and a couple of creepy kids.
In the lead, West, who had a starring role in “The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones,” hardly reacts to any of the crazy phenomenon her character witnesses. It’s hard to get engaged in the horrible goings on when the main character barely seems to register a realistic amount of fear and terror.
The film does not care about the Post Traumatic Stress Disorder that soldiers face, as this aspect of the movie is dropped entirely in the second act.
Clearly, the film’s moronic (literal) demonizing of Hawaiian culture was a breaking point for me but make no mistake, this earns its zero-star rating. There’s an awful fake-out stalk n’ scare sequence, which manages to be more compelling than the actual dramatic reveal that follows.
There’s a scene at a “Hawaiian” pond (anything purporting to be Hawaiian in this movie deserves quotation marks), where there’s a bunch of redwood trees but one visible palm tree (again, great job with the authenticity); when the protagonist dives in and the camera switches to underwater shots, it’s obvious this was filmed in a pool and not outdoors.
The irritating score by Walter Mair churns the sounds of groans and screeches but mostly sounds like two cars slowly scraping against one another.
At one point, the demon speaks in Latin, but we still get a “Hawaiian” exorcism. It’s as thrilling as the moment when the movie stops to listen to the kids struggle to pronounce humuhumunukunukuapuaa. There’s also a bit where an invisible spirit knocks over carefully placed dominos: now those ghosts are just showing off.
To give this movie a real break, the cinematography, production design and editing are at least professional…which is like calling a bad novel “readable,” so never mind.
“The Unfamiliar” is a bad horror movie all by itself, but it’s the weird insistence on insulting Hawaiian culture, and only that quality, that makes it memorable.
Not helping matters is the rotten dialog, though I appreciated the moment in mid-exorcism where the demon cries, “Please make it stop!” I know how that demon felt.