Who goes there?
A group of five biologists travels up to Norrland, situated in the northern part of Sweden, to investigate a burned down forest region. During their first scout, they find a strangely deformed cadaver of a small, unidentifiable creature. Taking it back to their camp site was the first mistake they made…
Making a film like The Unknown work the way it does, seems to me a very tricky ordeal. When you set out to make a film like this, with almost no means & money to make it (plus shooting it in one week, on location), I believe there’s only two ways any director can approach this. He either doesn’t care about what the outcome will be and the result is just a bad film made without care, or he’s actually very confident about the type of film he’s making. And the latter clearly was the case for director Michael Hjorth. He shows confidence and determination with this film and seemed well aware of the material he was working with as well as what could be done with it to turn it into an effective film. I’m pretty sure it came out as he envisioned it.
At the time of its release, though, something very unfortunate happened. Critics accused the film of being an inferior Swedish take on thinking it was made to cash in on the hyped-up succes of Sánchez & Myrick‘s low-budget hit. What they didn’t know, was that when The Blair Witch Project began its threatrical run, Hjorth was already editing his film. The director even stated in an interview that, having heard about this new movie at the time, he already feared some similarities and therefor refused to go watch it, as he didn’t want The Blair Witch Project to influence his film in any way., probably
Be it as it may be, I can safely say that The Unknown is at least as effective and scary (if not, even more) as its famous and quite unrelated predecessor. One thing I’ve always held against The Blair Witch Project, is that the little plot there was, developed at an uneven pace. The Unknown, however, progresses at a tight and steady tempo. And since we’re comparing things anyway, I’ll just say that both movies don’t have much more in common than a vague plot-outline: Some people in a remote woods-setting up against an unknown, malignant force. And that’s where the comparison ends, basically. Very well, there’s the “shakey-cam” filming style which grants The Unknown a similar look & feel, but there’s a difference. In The Blair Witch Project this filming technique was handled to evoke the notion that we’re dealing with “found footage”, supposedly shot by the characters themselves, making the film an actual faux documentary (a concept I’m sure the film-makers lifted from Ruggero Deodato‘s ). The Unknown, on the contrary, simply is a “real” film (as in: a work of unpretentious fiction) which much more feels like any Danish film made according the Dogma 95 principles (as co-founded by directors Thomas Vinterberg and Lars von Trier).
Does this mean we’re dealing with some sort of misunderstood “art-film” here? No, The Unkown foremost remains a Swedish horrorfilm. So let’s judge it as such, regardless its cinéma verité allures. Michael Hjorth lists and as his main sources of inspiration for The Unknown, and as far as its theme goes, it’s clearly noticeable. Visually, however, the film couldn’t look more different than all the incarnations of those two aforementioned classics. And this helps turning The Unknown into a rather unique viewing experience, instead of ending up as an inferior variant on the same concept. The handheld camera-work gets quite hectic at times, most of the audio appears to be recorded on the spot and the film was shot using only natural daylight and mostly flashlights at night. It looks rough and unpolished, but it does add a certain flair of realism. The film benefits a lot from the location, as it was shot in an actual forest that burned down. The desolate landscapes are drenched in a bleak and dreary atmosphere. A lot of credit also goes to the cast (three men and two women, each playing a character bearing their real firstname), that for once does not consist out of annoying teenagers doing stupid things or military folks sent out to clean up a mess. They don’t even pretend to be scientists, but basically walk, talk and act like everyday people. Through various bits of dialogues, writers Hjorth & Tivemark make sure we learn a bit more about the characters’ backgrounds. Eventhough they are friends, they all have small issues with one another. And when tension rises and terror sets forth amongst this group of friends, the previous knowledge we have about them cleverly pays off as a means to stir up confusion, distrust and fear. And somehow, The Unknown pulls it off, creating the same level of paranoia as those two movies it took as an example.
While the lack of budget forced both cast and crew to be creative, it also leaves a couple of things to be desired. On the one hand, focusing more on the relationships between the characters (instead of elaborating on the mystery inhabiting the forest’s soil or the origin of the mutating parasite) and playing it all out on one location, adds a solid sense of claustrophobia to the picture. On the other hand, some pretty big questions remain unanswered and the ending of the film plays out just like you’d expect. The remaining questions are plausible, though, as our group just had to figure out for themselves what was happening to them and the wildlife in the surrounding woods. The events took place during the course of one week, and things were escalating too fast to allow any further investigation, basically turning their ordeal into a terrifying game of survival. But still, I can imagine some viewers getting annoyed when not being given enough explanations. Concerning the ending itself: If you don’t see it coming, then you simply haven’t watched enough of this type of horror movies yet. If you have, then you’ll probably agree that since he didn’t have an amazing twist up his sleeve, Hjorth just ends the movie the way it should.
One final note about the “unknown organizm”. Obviously, The Unknown does not feature any fancy creature effects whatsoever. But in this case, less is more. Nobody even knows what the “creature” looks like, or what it actually does to anybody it attacks. But there are a few shots when we do get to see it in one particular form. And the way Hjorth briefly exposes it to the camera, works very effectively. The ugly little thing really looks alive when it moves at some point. Mostly, because it seems to be made out of real lumps of meat (although it probably wasn’t), somewhat resembling parts of a juicy steak or kebab. Either way, it’s an image that sticks with you, and I consider it Hjorth‘s “money-shot” of the creature. A shot that probably costed less than $10 to construct, special effects (barbecued steak or not) included.
Not bad. Not bad at all.
Running time: 87 mins
Audio: Danish, Dolby 5.1 & Dolby Stereo
Aspect ratio: 16/9 (1.78)
“Behind The Scenes” (22 mins)
“Trailer” (The Unknown)
“Trailers Mr. Horror Presents” (Darkwoods, The Roost & Frostbite)
Booklet (4 pages) with liner notes, pictures & terror trivia
“Behind The Scenes” is a short documentary and a nice addition to the feature film. The complete cast and crew is interviewed, and that’s not even 10 people we’re talking here. Funny to see this terrifying low-budget chiller turn into a charming little production. We get to hear anecdotes from everybody covering most aspects of the film. The comments are brief and to the point, but at least they’re interesting (so no shameless promo-talk or needlessly praising the work of fellow cast- and crewmembers). We get the positive impression that this film was made by a handful of dedicated and very motivated people. The interviews are intercut with footage taken during the shoot and clips from the movie. Nothing in-depth, really, just a fun addition.