After the death of a much despised patriarch, a mysterious box shows up during the reading of the will, forcing the family to reckon with each of their own deadly sins.
I’m not opposed to a film throwing everything but the kitchen sink into the mix. But if you’re going to attempt such a feat, you better be darn certain that you can pull it off.
Otherwise, you’ve got an unfocused (but not necessarily confusing) and meandering film which is going to fail to engage the audience.
Case in point: the new film The Unwilling, which was an Official Selection at the 2nd Annual HorrorHaus Film Festival in Los Angeles.
After their father (Lance Henriksen) dies in the film’s opening moments – with something supernatural and strange present at his death – several family members gather to hear the reading of his will. Son David (co-writer David Lipper), daughter Michelle (Starship Trooper’s Dina Meyer – who co-produced here), cousins Kelly and Darren (Austin Highsmith and Jake Thomas; respectively) and Michelle’s ex-husband Rich (Robert Rusler of A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge) as well as his tag-along fiance Cheryl (Bree Williamson) are all in attendance. An ornate box (introduced in the opening sequence) is all the group is given – and it doesn’t open. As time goes on, it’s discovered that the box will give each of the family members present – exactly what they want… but at a price. Once trapped inside the house, the group has to figure out what is happening and determine if and how they might escape.
There are some acting pros in the cast, and because of that – the performances are all pretty decent. The problem is what they are called upon to do – it’s just awful. The characters are under-developed and 2-dimensional. So even when the actors are giving it their all – the script fails them.
Despite that, we get some good work from Rusler (I would have expected nothing less). Rich is a douche-bag through and through, and Rusler owns it. Admittedly, Rich is a flat characterization, but Rusler makes him a character you love to hate.
But my favorite performance (despite the inexplicable emotional see-saw the script gives the character) is Bree Williamson as fiance Cheryl. Everyone has some decent moments, but it’s Williamson who seems to have the best handle on showing raw emotion. The character’s poorly written, but Williamson shows the most strength when up against the material she’s given.
Henriksen has but a few scenes, and as usual (and despite poor direction) he is able to offer some honesty in his performance. But his very brief appearance is clearly a name-grab and nothing more.
Despite an overall sub-par script, there are some good bits of dialogue sprinkled throughout (mercifully). My favorite was the car scene exchange early on the film — between Kelly and Darren.
The overall look of the film is really terrible. Lighting choices and camera angles do nothing but make the film look cookie-cutter and frankly, cheap. Of note were some weird close-ups in a conversation between Michelle and Cheryl – it’s awkward and doesn’t seem to add anything to the story-telling. And some strange dissolves/transitions later in the film just looked out of place.
We’re expected to buy into a conceit which comes into play in the film’s climax – as two of the survivors (you know it’s coming – I’ll just keep to myself who these people are) are suddenly lovey-dovey connected. They try to set it up early on, but it’s not enough and feels inauthentic.
I never cared about any of these characters. We get tidbits of history on pretty much everyone – but these morsels never serve to garner any sympathy.
In amongst the misguided structure of the film are possessions, pseudo-time travel, soap opera dramatics and an unknown and all-powerful evil (think Cthulu). This is where the kitchen sink analogy comes into play. There’s too much going on here – and the film desperately needs to find focus.
The score is also disjointed (properly matching the film’s tone). At points it sounds like melodramatic soap opera fare – and when things are meant to be more serious and suspenseful – it doesn’t rise to the occasion. But you can’t blame the score – since it’s working overtime to build danger/suspense where there is none.
There’s some sort of familial reconciliation which comes out of nowhere. Had we been more invested in the children’s history with their estranged father, this might have worked. But it’s seemingly thrown in there to attempt a bit of emotional release, but we didn’t care from the get-go, so it’s just awkward.
I believe that there’s a kernel of a really fun idea here. The box’s design is clearly HP Lovecraft/Cthulu inspired, but the film only hints at a cosmic danger or an over-riding and over-bearing evil force. I don’t think they really went for it, and the film suffers because of it.
I also believe that the inherent Agatha Christie set-up could have been further exploited for additional gain. It was right there, and barely touched. You’ve got six mismatched personalities – some of them connected – brought to a house by a mysterious invitation and forced to figure out how to operate/open a bizarre box.
Murder, intrigue and suspense… should have been dripping from the home’s walls, but the film doesn’t manage to drum up any of it. Missed opportunities, indeed.
As I’ve said dozens of times before – the devil is in the details. And the fact that the majority of the film takes place in the home of a diagnosed man with intense OCD – some of which is of the “uber-cleanliness/germ-free” variety – makes me wonder why a shower scene with Michelle shows a tiled tub area with dirty/grimy grout and a hard-water clogged/stained shower head. If the film were actually good, I could potentially have let something like that go – but with a character showing these specific characteristics – it’s a big misstep. The house is his, for goodness sake.
And despite all of the negatives I have thrown at the film, there are some solid moments of humor – most of it stemming from David’s OCD. Of note is the great moment when the group is trying to escape the house (when things go really bad). As David rushes to the front door – followed by the others – he brings everything to a stand-still as he must do his “1,2,3” unlocking of the three separate locks. Michelle pushes him aside in disgust and opens the door herself. It’s a laugh-out-loud moment, and you’ll wish the film would have found more of these moments of levity.
With some decent performances (despite a wishy-washy script) and not much else – overall, there’s little to recommend in The Unwilling. It’s a failure in direction and execution. Again – there’s something good here – buried under layers of ineptitude – but the filmmakers were unable to make use of this promising core concept.
The Unwilling has had a successful run on the festival circuit. And per the film’s IMDb page, it’s scheduled for a wider US release in April of 2018.