Sunday, April 15, 2018

Review: The Unwilling

Text © Richard Gary / Indie Horror Films, 2018
Images from the Internet

The Unwilling
Directed by Jonathan Heap
Vision Films / Northern Prod / Rough Diamond Prod /
Bertone Visuals Prod / Corrales Digital /
84 minutes, 2016 / 2018

When I see a film that has played many festivals and numerous and very different posters, I get a mixture of excited and cynically suspicious. But I’m keeping my fingers crossed. The director, Jonathan Heap, was nominated for an Oscar in 1991 for a short called 12:01 PM. Since the millennium, most of his work has been shorts and a television series. I willingly enter the bargain of watching this with hope, however, considering the cast and the look of the stills from it, but I’m jumping ahead.

The premise is simple: an ugly and evil box gives you want you want, and then takes over your body and either kills others or gets the body killed through its actions. For lack of a better term, I’ll call this being a demon, though it’s never really quite specific on its origins, and even complains when someone tries to name it.

We learn the box has been doing this for quite a while as we meet an extended family, based on the children of the previous “owner,” veteran badass Lance Henricksen, who in an extended cameo still manages to outshine most. After the box had come into his life when the now adults were mere kids, he had changed and became a cruel tormentor to his children, leading the main and locus character, David (co-writer with the director, David Lipper) to become housebound due to severe OCD (think of Monk with agoraphobia and without the humor).
Lance Henricksen
Also joining him at his home after the death of his dear old evil dad, to hear the reading of the will, are his similarly abused and hyper-vain sister Michelle (Dina Meyer, who gets to show off some impressive yoga moves), her brutish ex-husband Rich (Robert Rusler) and his current fiancée Cheryl (the lovely Bree Williamson, who I remember from the underrated television show, “Haven”), and cousins Kelly (Austin Highsmith), who is a lawyer and enabler to her junkie brother, Darren (Jake Thomas).

Not a huge cast, but just enough for a decent body count. But I’m jumping ahead of myself again here. The box itself looks pretty cool, sort of like coal with a Cthulhu-similar raised octopus design on it. There’s no denying that it’s bound to remind one of the Book from Evil Dead. Fact of the matter is that there is a lot here that is reminiscent of other films, which in itself I don’t really find to be a bad thing most of the time. It’s like a game of “Oh, I know that one! Take a drink!”

Dina Meyer
The film has moments of slow pacing here and there, but mostly it’s a building story. That being said, it can definitely use some editing and excising, such as how many times do we need to see the water coming from Meyer’s shower head straight on? It’s almost like you’re stuck a bit in David’s need to (rinse and) repeat. Luckily, this doesn’t happen often enough to give up on the story, which mostly works pretty well, in part thanks to its seasoned cast (meant as experience, not age).

Many of the characters are either not likeable or a bit two-dimensional, though David’s seems to be the most thought through (well, the actor playing him did co-write it, remember); however, he is also the center of the story, so that makes sense. We don’t get to learn too much about the others; well, more than occupations and allegiances. There’s very little backstory other than bad dad.

My big question, though, is the title. To me, it sounds kind of contradictory. Okay, here is what I mean by that: the whole premise is based on all the characters volunteering to do something with the box that I won’t give away, and then the box giving each what they want in order to…well, you know (i.e., see the film for yourself). They make choices about what they want, and follow through with the devil’s deal (or demon’s; still not sure). That sounds more like willing than unwilling. Is there something I missed? It’s a similar theme to the Leprechaun franchise where he grants wishes that brings along demise in it, or even as far back as Goethe’s Faust. The working title of the film was The Gathering, and while The Unwilling definitely sounds more chilling, the other seems more accurate. Yeah, I know this is a bit nit-picky; do with it what you will.

Bree Williamson
The SFX in the film are occasionally practical appliances (the blood consistency and color is really good, by the way), but there is also a lot of digital hoo-haa, such as swirling smoke, mirror tricks (reminiscent of Carpenter’s 1987 Prince of Darkness) and a visual “ripple” that leads a character to the box to get what he needs/wants. Other than one cheesy effect outside the house, they all look decent, but it’s pretty obvious that it’s optical.

The press release for the film quite proudly states (and rightfully so), that the crew includes the aforementioned Oscar-nominated director, “Oscar-… and Emmy-winning Cinematographer David Stump,” and multiple award-winning writer Philip Morton (second director and co-producer on this film). With all this heavy power, it’s not surprising that the film looks as good as it does. There is no one thing that is a standout to make me say “Wow,” but it’s definitely a good film, though somewhat washed out of color (I’m sure purposefully). Do I think it’s deserving of such praise? Well, it’s been shown at two dozen festivals around the world, so you there is something there worth noting.

Austin Highsmith
Other than editing, my only real note and quibble is that I think it didn’t go far enough. Except for a nice surprise at the end with an equally enjoyable practical effect (well, it looks like it is an appliance, so I’m assuming…), there is hardly any blood (even with the one person stabbed in a strategic place), the sensuality is minimal other than an affected nurse (Levy Tran, who is on the poster and most of her appearance in the film is in the trailer) and a seduction that changes tone, there is no nudity even with the obligatory shower scene (perhaps the Director’s Cut in a decade or two?), and a low level of actual scares. The pace and angst definitely increases over the course of the film, but it tends to get more shrill than thrill.

Jake Thomas
And yet… I still had a bit of fun watching it. Yeah, I’m critical, but I hope I am not harsh. Even with a seasoned director, actors and crew, there’s the next level and I mean these comments as “notes” and “critique” more than just “opinion” (i.e., where the problem are, rather than “good/bad”).

For example, the acting level is fine, with a bit over- and underacting on occasion. As I said, the cast are seasoned pros and have quite a catalog behind just about all of them, from both film and television, and it shows. The strongest weakness (an oxymoron!) in the writing comes, I believe, from this being the first screenplay for Lipper, and director Heap hasn’t had a writing credit since the early 1990s. But I hope they both continue to stretch their writing wings because there is promise here, and I think by a couple of more films they can be a force. I look forward to that.

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