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Inaccurately titled horror film The Unfamiliar purees together an assortment of tired tropes with just enough originality and admirable craftsmanship to make 89 minutes of jump scares and twists visible from outer space reasonably bearable. Its first move is to make us wonder whether main protagonist Izzy (Jemima West), a British army doctor just home from Afghanistan, is really picking up on weird supernatural shenanigans in her rural home or suffering from acute post-traumatic stress disorder. Something definitely doesn’t seem right with her husband Ethan (Christopher Dane) who has suddenly shifted away from studying Polynesian totems (there’s a particularly scary looking one in the baby’s bedroom) in favour of writing children’s fiction. Meanwhile, her pre-adolescent son (Harry McMillan-Hunt) seems to be hiding secrets, and her adolescent daughter (Rebecca Hanssen) is acting just like, er, a stroppy teenager. In a somewhat witty reversal of expectations, CCTV camera footage of what Izzy thought were freaky events with demonic presences reveals nothing is there at all. Or is there?
Somehow, it all comes to a climax when the family goes on holiday to Hawaii, which is at least a mildly novel setting for horror hijinks. If director Henk Pretorius demonstrates little more than mere competence in building atmosphere, at least he and his casting directors can spot talent in child actors. Both McMillan-Hunt and Hanssen are genuinely terrific as the troubled kids, projecting ambiguous signals about whether they’re possessed or just hormonal. It’s not entirely clear, but I believe they are supposed to be Izzy’s stepchildren, which makes this an interesting gloss on the usual family dynamics of fairytales, where the stepmother is meant to be the bad guy, not the kids. Elsewhere, Robbie Drake’s creature effects designs are effectively spooky and the use of white contact lenses never ceases to be creepy, however familiar it is as a sign of malignancy.
• The Unfamiliar is available on digital platforms from 11 September.
Source: The Guardian
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