The Unwilling

Will readings might be passe as a rule, but in dramatic terms they’re wonderful plot devices. It’s the perfect excuse to gather together all the friends and relatives of the dearly (or not so dearly) departed in one spot, preferably some sort of large, spooky old house, for everything from revealing deep, dark secrets to experiencing terrifying hauntings. In The Unwilling, the group gathering together will face both those extremes, and far worse, as what should be a legal formality soon turns deadly.

The recently deceased here is Mr. Harris (Lance Henriksen), and his son, David (David Lipper) lives in a pretty good example of a creepy house, it being both isolated and full of odd noises and strange shadows. David isn’t happy to have a horde of long-lost relatives descending on him, as he suffers from OCD and visitors make his anxiety spike. Since he also suffers from agoraphobia and hasn’t set foot outside in years, however, there really aren’t any other options. He’s glad to see his sister Michelle (Dina Meyer), at least, though there is some awkwardness when Michelle discovers that her ex, Rich (Robert Rusler), is also there, along with his new fiancee Cheryl (Bree Williamson). Similarly, most seem glad to see cousin Kelly (Austin Highsmith) again, but are less thrilled by the presence of the black sheep drug addict of the family, Darren (Jake Thomas). Still, it’s only a brief reunion and they should all manage, right?

There’s an immediate hitch, however, as the group waits in vain for the arrival of the lawyer. Equally, there’s no copy of the will around, just a hideous old metal box that belonged to the deceased and which no one can figure out how to open. To make things more interesting it’s also a trapped box and eventually sharp needles start to appear. They aren’t poisoned needles, though they all might have been better off if they were. No, these needles are creepier than that, as they allow the box to sense each person’s weaknesses, from greed to vanity to Darren’s overwhelming need for drugs. And that’s where the party really gets going.

Darren and the mysterious box.
Now that’s one ugly looking box.


My first thought was that this would be one of those movies filled with bizarre supernatural rules that the characters somehow miraculously figure out even though there’s no way they should be able to. But it’s both more straightforward and more horrific than that — it’s all about what you want and need, or at least think you need. The box is more than happy to give you those things, since that’s how the box gets what it wants. It doesn’t even matter why you want whatever the box gives you, from passing whim to the most dire necessity, for the most selfish or the most altruistic reasons, and that’s what makes it so insidious.

What makes the film good is primarily the characters and the conflicts among them. Given the terrible father figure involved — Michelle says flat out that it’s a good thing he’s dead — this isn’t going to be the most smoothly functioning family, and it’s that tension that helps anchor the characters and the plot as the horror builds. However strange things get, there are still realistic characters and convincing problems for you to relate to, and that keeps the film focused and solid even when the supernatural aspects are at their weirdest, and they do get pretty weird. But it’s an excellent balance of horror and drama, with David Lipper particularly memorable as he does his best to shield himself from the terror through his rituals. The character might have become nothing but a collection of tics and habits, but instead helps to give a fresh approach to a fairly traditional script. Dramatic though they might be, it’s probably for the best that no one gathers for the reading of the will anymore.

Under the Tree

Konrad and his chainsaw. He has no idea what he's doing with that thing.

There’s an old saying about how you can choose your friends but you can’t choose your family. You also can’t generally choose your neighbors, and sometimes they can be even harder to avoid than family, It can be a real risk to try to befriend a neighbor, because if it all goes wrong somehow your only option is to pack up and move, and that’s a hassle nobody wants. Still, in Under the Tree, both sets of neighbors would have been much better off if they’d fled to opposite sides of the country.

Admittedly Iceland isn’t a very big country, but that might have worked. It sounds like the neighbors got along until Konrad (Þorsteinn Bachmann) got a divorce and moved his girlfriend Eybjorg (Selma Björnsdóttir) into the house. Meanwhile, Baldvin (Sigurður Sigurjónsson) and Inga’s (Edda Björgvinsdóttir) elder son Uggi has disappeared, and while it’s believed that he took his own life, Inga is still tormented by the uncertainty. Younger son Atli (Steinþór Hróar Steinþórsson) is having marital difficulties, as his wife Agnes (Lára Jóhanna Jónsdóttir) was upset to find him enjoying a video a little too much. Yes, it was one of those, though I won’t mention the particularly odd twist. So Atli has moved back in with his parents and into Ground Zero.

Inga and Baldvin have a largish shade tree in their backyard, you see, and they’re proud of it since there aren’t many other sizable trees in the area. But Eybjorg likes to sunbathe — which seems like a doubtful hobby in Iceland — and the tree’s shadow falls right across her back porch. Bitter over the loss of her son and jealous of the younger woman, Inga throws a fit whenever anyone suggests so much as trimming the tree. The situation is at an uneasy impasse until the dirty tricks start, and escalate fast. When Inga’s cat goes missing, she confronts Konrad, who coolly denies all knowledge… while taking a chainsaw out of his car.

You can imagine how things go from that point. Scandinavian movies can be pretty dark, but this one is darker than any Icelandic winter and twice as cold. Though you often sympathize with the characters — Inga is certainly spiteful, for instance, but the limbo she’s forced to live in must be terrible — it’s hard to really like any of them. Eybjorg and Konrad seem to expect that everything will go their way and can’t seem to get it when life inevitably doesn’t cooperate. Baldvin prefers to hide at choir practice rather than face reality, and I won’t even get into Atli and his temper.

But as another old saying goes, even the wicked get worse than they deserve, and that’s certainly true here. By the time the dust settles and the blood dries, no one left standing will ever be the same, though it’s doubtful if any of them have learned much. The slow, steady escalation of the situation is perfectly paced, however, and even when you want to shout at the characters to stop being so ridiculous, you also can’t wait to see what bizarre thing happens next. It’s the ultimate slow-motion train wreck with some of the darkest and most uncomfortable humor imaginable. But it’s also a solid drama and a fascinating watch that you won’t be able to look away from — even if you really, really wish you could,

Dark Forest

Kim and Franky kiss. Never do this in a horror movie, kids.

The woods really get a bad reputation in a lot of horror movies. I lived in the woods for the first seventeen years of my life and I never once saw a monster or a homicidal maniac. Even the animals aren’t all that dangerous as long as you leave them alone, though we did have badgers around and sometimes no matter how careful you are they’ll still try to claw your face off. Of course any animal can be dangerous under the right (or wrong) circumstances, which is my best guess at what the underlying message of Dark Forest is meant to be.
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