In British horror The Unfamiliar, Army doctor Izzy (Jemima West) returns from war bearing battle scars. Her home and family seem not quite right, with spooky events beginning within minutes. The film’s horror is balanced on the uncertainty of what is really happening to Izzy. It works up to a point, but the number of possible answers becomes overwhelming, with ideas introduced and dropped without explanation.

West’s Izzy is a refreshing lead female character: smart, strong, and able to navigate fear with a cool head. Middle child Tommy (Harry McMillan-Hunt) is the real charmer, however, his nervous expression and oddly eloquent lines the film’s only dance with some welcome light relief.

Where The Unfamiliar really falls apart is the use of Hawaiian folklore as a buzzword for generalised exotic witchiness. Writer-director Henk Pretorius fails to explore or justify the cultural images and ideas he uses, making the entire Hawaii connection both appropriative and inexplicable. An interaction at the end between a white woman and a woman of colour hashes out an all-too-familiar relationship between white protagonists and BAME side characters, leaving a bad taste.

Even without cultural appropriation, the rushed first half hour makes it hard to get a sense of the characters or the space they inhabit. This leaves the film feeling more like Inside No. 9 than The Babadook (not a problem if it were funny, which it is not). The resulting flavour is confusion rather than mystery. Without revealing too much – ignorance is bliss going into this – the narrative’s surprising pivot greatly improves the film, but it quickly loses clarity. Amid this chaos are some good moments of cinematography by Pete Wallington, but it’s not enough to save the film.

It really is the case of character development and context being sacrificed in place of jump scares and arbitrary exoticism in this scary but over-familiar horror.



CAST: Jemima West, Christopher Dane, Rebecca Hanssen, Harry McMillan-Hunt

DIRECTOR: Henk Pretorius

WRITERS: Henk Pretorius, Jennifer Nicole Stang

SYNOPSIS: A British Army doctor returns from active service, only to experience disturbing events at her home. She must question whether the sinister atmosphere is caused by her own mental health, or if there are outside forces at work.