There are only so many iterations of the haunted house trope and yet they continue getting made. Sometimes we’re lucky with James Wan’s The Conjuring series delivering fear along with period aesthetic and tense mood, but those are few and far between. More often we receive work trying hard to stand out from the pack that prove less than inspired with the past decade or so seeing an uptick in violence and gore to make up for any redundancies in themes. To that end I commend regular genre TV movie director Sheldon Wilson for showing restraint on The Unspoken. Atmosphere is paramount as it should be, but sadly it’s created almost solely from jump scares the prologue quickly numbs us towards as soon as things get going.
It’s 1997 and a seemingly empty house has blood-covered windows and abandoned cars in the front driveway. The door swings wide and a deputy (Matt Bellefleur) calls for backup before deciding to enter on his own anyway. For five minutes things go bump, he jumps, and nothing is there until something is: one of the victims. Apparently an entire family disappeared as though the home consumed them. There’s talk about demons and ghosts from the survivor, but the chaos could never be explained. We’ve seen nothing but the aftermath of an unknown event and the skittish police officer that stumbled upon it. We don’t know what to think or who to care about. And if we jumped too, we laugh at ourselves. The film isn’t scary. We’re gullible.
So rather than readying ourselves for more horror, we’ve steeled ourselves from Wilson’s tricks. That’s the last thing he wants because this movie is nothing without its tricks. Suddenly we’re seventeen years later and our lead is introduced as Angela (Jodelle Ferland), an outsider whose romantic entanglement with girlfriend Pandy (Chanelle Peloso) is complicated by three criminals-in-training (Anthony Konechny‘s Luther, Jonathan Whitesell‘s Logan, and Jake Croker‘s Rodney) who frown upon that sort of thing. Angela is a good girl who volunteers at a church daycare; her father a good man (Lochlyn Munro) who’s hit hard times with unemployment after the death of his wife (Jessie Fraser). So when the prospect of a new job arises, the young girl springs into action to help stabilize their finances.
The gig is to help babysit the son (Sunny Suljic‘s Adrian) of a stranger (Pascale Hutton‘s Jeanie) who inexplicably moved into the old Briar Road home we saw dripping with blood at the start. It’s a promising revelation setting up some good old-fashioned scares and maybe even a possession or two to make things interesting. Except that’s not what happens at all. Sure there are some spooky moments like plates shaking or marbles rolling out from under locked doors that were opened minutes earlier. Sure there are dead animals as part of some demonic sacrifice surrounding the perimeter. But besides half-baked notions of a haunting, Jeanie seems unperturbed and nothing “bad” has necessarily happened unless you count a tonally dissonant murder that’s never really mentioned again.
Instead we become embroiled in the goings on of Luther’s gang and their drug stash unsurprisingly hidden in the thought-to-be empty house’s basement. So is this a horror film with supernatural attributes or the beginning of a home invasion thriller? To its detriment Wilson decides to supply both at once in a way that harms each of their potential successes. Angela starts having waking nightmares, more people disappear, Officer Bower (Neal McDonough) arrives to deliver small town cop clichés without ever getting involved in the plot’s meat, and we’re finally so overwhelmed with asides and periphery deflection that we’ve grown frustrated with the whole. Not even a somewhat intelligent reason for what’s happening can save the film from feeling hollow because the revelation’s intrigue is never tapped.
I want to know more about the catalysts for what’s occurring because that story has dramatic weight. We’ve been watching Angela in danger (or thinking she is since most jolts are at the score’s staccato beats of falling objects where her reaction scares Adrian more than the sound itself), hoping purpose will be introduced only to discover the entire movie is a MacGuffin for a “twist” setting up a legitimately cool premise we never experience. Just like the constant false alarms begging us to jump in fright, The Unspoken turns out to be the biggest one yet as its characters are deemed worthless in comparison to this “world”. We’ve merely watched pawns moving towards an a-ha moment only we can appreciate and yet our curiosity is never satisfied.
We’re forced to take things on faith and accept flimsy motivations and convenient emotions mean more than the minuscule run-time allotted. Why is a lesbian relationship alluded to between Angela and Pandy if the results of tragedy show them to barely seem like friends? Why let Logan appear as hard and vicious as his two buddies before giving him a line in the sand he won’t cross that ultimately proves meaningless? (SPOILER) Why let Angela be haunted by her mother if you’re going to reveal it’s literally just her imagination? (END SPOILER) You can see the strings connecting everyone together every step of the way because no one is onscreen to be him/herself. Everyone’s here to merely ensure someone else hits his/her mark before returning the favor. Spontaneity is non-existent.
And that’s the kiss of death for a horror steeped in the real world without fantastical visuals to wow us enough to distract from its shortcomings. Without spontaneity we’re going through the motions as much as the film, our attention waning. Springing the most interesting aspect in the final three minutes so that it goes nowhere only makes matters worse because it proves we really have wasted our time. I’m glad to see Ferland finding work after a prolific horror career in her youth and watching Suljic do his best Danny Torrance death stare even when he isn’t supposed to be creepy does entertain. Beyond that, however, the finished work is uninspired. While I’d love a film that begins with this one’s end, the build-up is inconsequential.
The Unspoken hits limited release on October 28.