“Man, this better not be another stupid prank!”
It is the middle of the night, in the middle of nowhere. Fellow campers Louie (Viso Bennett), Alan (Jason Tobias) and Shane (Bob Turton) have all been woken by the sound of screaming, and discovered that their friend John (Jack Crumbine) is now missing from the tent that he had been sharing with Michael (Zack Gold). A heroin addict suffering withdrawal, Michael slept through the screams – but now these four friends are all awake and searching in the darkness for John. They soon find him, sitting, dead, in the driver’s seat of their (sabotaged) car with a plastic bag over his head. “This is fucking unbelievable,” mumbles Michael incredulously, as the immensity of their predicament and the extremity of their isolation slowly dawn on him.
Thomas Jakobsen’s feature debut The Unraveling styles itself as a survival slasher (think Deliverance or any of its derivative tributaries), and yet occasionally – as in the lines quoted above – shows overt awareness of how incredibly contrived its tropes are. For as we watch these urban men, struggling in the Great American Wilderness and very much out of their depth, picked off one after the other by an unseen foe (or foes), those beautifully shot forest panoramas, though strange and hostile to these city slickers, represent all-too-familiar territory to the genre fan. There is even, after much cat and mouse, a cabin in the woods – with an axe conveniently planted in a stump just outside, and a corpse waiting within. These off-road locales may represent a frontierland between civilisation and mankind’s more primitive drives and urges, but they are also the stuff of pure horror cliché – as though these men are performing what any horror hound will regard as a staged ritual of genre.
In fact, their camping retreat has been marked by performances and pranks from the very opening scene. After a night of partying and petty thievery, Michael returns home in the morning to his heavily pregnant fiançée Jess (Cooper Harris), and tells her he has been doing a late shift at work. “You promised me you wouldn’t do this anymore,” Jess says, to which Michael replies, “I didn’t have a choice.” Both are playing a delicate game here, their ambiguous words acknowledging what Michael had really been up to all night, while also maintaining the fiction of his lie. Later that day, Michael will be violently abducted from his workplace, and bundled into the boot of a car, by four men in Friday the 13th-style hockey masks – but these, it will quickly emerge, are his four friends, merely playing at horror tropes while forcing him to join them on a camping trip after he failed to show up to his own stag party. Once out in the wilderness, several slasher-style POVs and nocturnal assaults will turn out to be further pranks perpetrated by the friends – while at the same time the disappearance of Michael’s stash and the odd conspiratorial glance shared by the others make it clear that this putative camping trip is an intervention in disguise.
All of which is to say that, by the time things get serious and the body count starts, masquerade has long since been established as a key theme here, and there is the sense that the well-handled slasher format, with all that running about in the dark and the trees, is there merely as a stage for Michael’s more personal journey to the outer limits of his addiction. For The Unraveling joins the ranks of Aaron Moorhead and Justin Benson‘s Resolution (2012) and Fede Alvarez’s Evil Dead (2013) as another ‘cold turkey horror’ in which a drug-dependent character is dragged through a hellish genre landscape in search of resolution, redemption, maybe even recovery. The problem is, though, that once The Unraveling removes its mask and reveals itself for what it truly is, that reality is so “fucking unbelievable” – and self-righteously sanctimonious, to boot – that many viewers will end up wishing that it were just the slasher it pretends to be, rather than the “stupid prank” that it is.
Still, DP Milton Santiago’s spectacular aerials of the wilderness and some impressively off-kilter sets ensure that The Unraveling always looks good – and, as befits a film whose very first image is a closeup of drugs being cut with a razor blade, Chris Witt’s editing is a triumph, cross-cutting between events as they happen, Michael’s neon-lit memories of his last night in town, and his more hallucinatory experiences deep in the woods as his detoxing mind unravels and home truths must finally out.
© Anton Bitel