The Unknown



Det Okanda : Sweden 2000 : Michael Hjorth : c87 mins

Five young scientists stumble across what looks like the remains of an alien creature while conducting soil research in a remote Swedish forest. Before long, one or two of the group start acting very strangely.

While The Unknown is a bland, generic title, for worldwide audiences it pretty much sums up the current status of debutant writer-director Hjorth and his cast – Tomas Tiverman (who co-wrote the script), Jacob Ericksson, Ann-Sofie Rase, Marcus Palm and Ingvar Sigvardsdotter – all of them veterans of Swedish TV.

The ‘stars’ are equally unfamiliar, so there’s none of the casting hierarchy that often makes equivalent American productions so grindingly predictable – and a lack of international profile doesn’t mean any lack of ability. The performances are uniformly strong and convincing, crucial to an enterprise that walks the narrow line between minimalist tension and cheesy implausibility.

This is clearly no-budget film-making, all done in a single location with hand-held cameras (or should that be ‘camera’?), but Hjorth’s inventive approach transform the cheapness of the production into a virtue. He shows us the characters reacting to the disturbing things they see, though we hardly ever get to see them ourselves. The strength of the characterisation results in an intense, paranoid atmosphere that Hollywood budgets simply can’t buy – there’s a nervy, gross dissection sequence that could teach Blade II‘s equivalent scene a thing or two about suspense.

The slightly sub-standard, grainy visuals also serve to mask the limitations in the special effects: when we do see the ‘creature’ in action, the distorted lighting and the brevity of the shot means we can’t examine it too closely. The script, likewise, gives us just the right amount of detail to allow our imagination to fill in the gaps, without ever feeling as though we’re compensating for holes in the plot or conception. This enables TheUnknown to establish its own creepy mood, despite its over-familiar underlying message that urban-dwellers shouldn’t stray too far from town (one of the academics moans that he wishes he was back home eating a McDonalds) or, more precisely, shouldn’t stray beyond their mobile phones’ reception zone.

Hjorth and Tivemark’s script has enough local flavour, meanwhile, to assert itself and shake free of its obvious heavy debts to Invasion of the Body Snatchers, the more scientific and arboreal episodes of The X-Files, and, of course, The Blair Witch Project. Hjorth nods to Blair Witch by having all the characters using their own names and, at one point, running around screaming and shining torches into the trees at night, but The Unknown thankfully makes no pretence at being ‘found footage.’ Nor does it adhere too closely to Scandinavian cinema’s ‘dogme’ principles, although this is as close to a ‘dogme horror’ as we’re ever likely to get.

In fact, Hjorth’s use of dogme-prohibited sound effects and atmospheric music is one of his strong suits: the way he cuts from the wittily downbeat final shot to the end-credits (over which a wittily downbeat pop song by Bravo 6 plays) is typical of a director whose flair and cinematic timing indicate a talent already in excess of his over-praised compatriot and contemporary Lukas Moodysson. The director of Fucking Amal and Together has been hailed as Swedish cinema’s ‘young master’ according to Ingmar Bergman, the legendary director to whom Hjorth may be nodding by mentioning the auteur’s birthplace in his film’s final line (“next stop, Uppsala.”) Let’s hope the reclusive master appreciates the homage, and retains enough sense to recognise a real rising talent when he sees one.

26th April 2002
(seen on video, 22nd April 2002, consequent to showing at 18th Fantastic Film Festival)

by Neil Young
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