Settle Your Expectations for The Unsettling (CFF)
Title: The Unsettling
First Non-Festival Release: TBD
Director: Harry Owens
Writer: Harry Owens
Runtime: 93 Minutes
Starring: Zephani Idoko, Bambadjan Bamba, Libby Munro
Where to Watch: Check out where to find it here
This film’s review was written after its screening at the Chattanooga Film Festival in 2022.
Abena (Zephani Idoko) and Kwame (Bambadjan Bamba) move into their short-term rental in Los Angeles fully expecting to enjoy their vacation. Abena can’t shake the feeling that something is off about the home but pushes her doubts aside for Kwame’s sake. It’s evident the couple are at odds with each other as Kwame shoots down and subverts Abena’s ideas for spending time together, particularly when Kwame secretly invites their long-term friends Vivian (Libby Munro) and Anthony (Benedikt Sebastian) over for dinner. The quiet terror of the house looms, waiting to take advantage of all the fractured relationships under its roof.
Lackluster horror drama The Unsettling tells a bland supernatural tale of grief without the strong performances or writing to back it up.
Quite possibly the most egregious aspect of The Unsettling is how it approaches its horror. It must be said that slow-burn horror can be quite exhilarating when done right. Part of that condition depends on how the horror builds up throughout the story. Without proper escalation, the attempts to hold back lead to frustration. Typically, modern slow-burns that fail are ones that don’t inject enough horror moments leading up to the chaotic finale.
The Unsettling takes this a step further by blunting the effect of the horrors of their vacation home by making literally every scare a dream sequence up until the 76-minute mark. The film itself only runs less than 90 minutes before credits. It’s a baffling decision that not only betrays the trust in the audience for sticking with the story but alienates them.
The story takes place over the course of two days in an air bnb style house and by the end the audience is left with more questions than answers. Does Abena’s unresolved trauma ever get addressed? No. Is there any development of the antagonist so the audience understands what is meant to be feared? No. Is there a greater metaphor for the events that happen to the small group of friends? No. The Unsettling is the equivalent of cinematic blue balls. As someone that has seen a deluge of terrible movies, very few have made me regret watching them. The Unsettling spits in the face of that by ending with a sub-ten-minute climax that denies the audience any sort of payoff.
Most of the development of the small cast happens over the course of an awkward reunion dinner. The chemistry is undeniably absent between everyone. Both couples lack any sort of spark with each other and the same can be said when they interact as couples with each other. Why do these people care about each other? They act more like distant co-workers than life-long friends catching up over drinks. Perhaps this is intentional, but it doesn’t feel quite earned through the dialogue.
Aside from Abena, who the audience is essentially experiencing this story through, some attempts to develop the characters are made throughout the film with only marginal success. Kwame is shown to be a people pleaser out of his personal desire to be seen as successful. Vivian has an elusive backstory as a therapist, trained in hypnosis, who tragically lost a patient some time ago. Anthony contributes to conversations sometimes. When confined to pairs or single actors, the acting is typically serviceable. When the four leads get together, their lack of chemistry is noticeable.
The Unsettling is a film about unresolved trauma that subsequently does not resolve in a meaningful way. Maybe that is the point that writer director Harry Owens is going for but it’s doubtful. It does have a few higher notes. Some of the visuals are nice. Whenever the ghostly woman from the visions shows up onscreen, she is suitably creepy. The film drips with a promising sinister tone, mostly kept up by the frightening visions Abena briefly experiences.
The more I think about this movie, the angrier I get. Which, as a reviewer, I want to avoid because there is clearly talent both on and off the screen. Truthfully, that is the bitter pill here. The Unsettling has the ingredients of a solid horror drama, but due to horrendous writing and stiff chemistry, it never comes together. Fans of more subdued horror or horror-drama films may find something worth waiting for. The likelihood, however, is that most will find The Unsettling bland, forgettable, and unnecessarily irritating of a feature.
Overall Score? 4/10