Writer/director’s Zachary Donohue’s debut feature The Den (aka Hacked, 2013) was an innovative screen-life thriller, where ‘found footage’ sourced from webcams, CCTV and smartphone reveal the internet itself as an anonymous hunting ground for home invasion and horrific entrapment. Donohue’s latest work, The Unknowable, also pieces its narrative together from recordings if not quite found then repurposed. For this forty-minute web series, set in the middle of the last century and conveniently divided into ten bite-sized (yet full-flavoured) chapters, is a mesmerising kaleidoscope of archival footage from the public domain and new material designed to look old, with a narration (voiced by Sean Burgos) that makes all this disparate imagery cohere into a wild story (told from a uniquely singular perspective) of twentieth-century America at its most mysterious, marginal and mad.
Compelled by drives and visions that they do not fully understand, Thaddeus Wilcox (Chris Voss), his sporadically sickly wife Fanny (Ally Voss) and Fanny’s mute, mask-wearing sister Mabel (Sarah Eisenberg) move during the night from their luxurious home in San Francisco to the remote Silent Creek property in the Mojave Desert, where they attempt to make contact with interdimensional beings known as the Erendu who have summoned them there. Yet as they open a portal not just to these extra-terrestrial entities but also to the disturbed serial killer Angus Duquette (Kevin Swanstrom) and the witch Agatha Carruthers (Kimberly Ables Jindra), we know from the start that this enigmatic confluence of forces will lead to the subsequent discovery of three corpses in the property’s ruins. As even a documentary filmmaker (Garrett Schweighauser) proves unable to capture this cosmic convergence on camera, perhaps only the narrator is left to connect the dots.
Barreling along at a bewildering pace and packed with plenty of surreal detail, Donohue’s monochrome mystery packages itself somewhere between the reality of a newsreel and the fantasy of a serial adventure – by no coincidence the two formats that screened before a Fifties B picture. For this chronology-confounding, paradox-piling melodrama races inexorably towards its foretold meltdown, while taking plenty of detours into the occult, the paranormal, the wonderful and the wyrd, conjuring an alternative twentieth-century US history from the flotsam and jetsam of forgotten culture.
Funny (in both senses), lysergic (literally, in one sequence), and laden with ultra-fast, utterly insane exposition, Donohue’s freaky-deaky reconstruction of events that never happened is a blast from a past that, apart from the chaotic confluence of fragments collated for this narrative, has been erased from human memory and lost in the space between multiple universes, where it is truly unknowable.
You can watch the full series here:
strap: Zachary Donohue’s occult sci-fi web series is a paradoxical pastiche of lost American cultural history and paracinematic detritus, repurposed to amuse and confuse
© Anton Bitel