U: The Unknown (2000)

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So while casting about for movies off my usual beaten path this year, I came across the Swedish flick Det Okānda, or as it is known in English-speaking countries, The Unknown. Somehow I’d never heard of it, despite it being nominated for Grand Prize at Sitges and the Brussels International Festival of Fantasy, and actually winning at Luxembourg’s Film Festival.

There may be some reasons for that. Let’s look at the film itself, first.

Five young biologists (Jacob Ericksson, Marcus Palm, Ann-Sofie Rase, Ingar Sigvardsdotter, and Tomas Tivemark) are sent by their University, at the behest of the Environmental Protection Agency, to survey the site of a huge forest fire. In three weeks, they will catalog the damage and any remaining wildlife. Being who we are and what time of year it is, we will presume that things will not go as planned.

What is assumed to be a burned animal is found on the first day – problem is, none of our gang can figure out what animal it might be. After drinking entirely too much that evening, they decide to to dissect it, and still get no answers – though two people, in the flash of a camera, see something black dart further back into the carcass. They finally put the thing into a cooler and go to sleep.

In the morning, Ingar finds her menstrual flow has gotten frighteningly bad. We’re talking emergency room bad. She manages to shrug it off, but that mysterious animal carcass is now missing. “A fox or a wolverine got it.” The site where they found the carcass is anomalously hot, even for the site of a forest fire. Ingar’s condition worsens during the  day. She begins to get hysterical – “Something’s inside me!” and she may be right. She vanishes into the woods. Some trees have fallen across the only road out. The car stops working. Everything goes to hell and paranoia is the order of the day as Jacob suspects there is some sort of horrid infection in play, and it may already be too late for Tomas, Ingar’s boyfriend. Maybe for them all.

Inspecting the second most expensive thing in the movie.

The first thing that is going to be assumed is that The Unknown was inspired by The Blair Witch Project, released the year before. I don’t think that’s actually the case, but the feel is definitely similar – similar enough that it’s even name-checked on the poster above. Though not a found footage film, the entire movie is shot handheld. The characters all use the actors’ first names. Some, but certainly not all, of the dialog feels improvised. And the budget is super low – apparently around $200,000 in US dollars.

That handheld camerawork helps cover that up immeasurably, like the fact that they could only afford the one bizarre carcass (of which we never get a truly good look). There is one particularly unsettling scene where Marcus stumbles upon some hideous Lovecraftian creature and all we can see are a couple of visceral tendrils twitching in the brush while the actors react.

I find the paranoid bickering as the movie progresses as tiresome as I did in Blair Witch, but as the saying goes, talk is cheap – action costs money. The Unknown is probably about 15 minutes too long, but it is a very good piece of extremely low-budget filmmaking, a good example of what some ingenuity and a lot of talent can pull off without access to megabucks.

It’s also another reason why I won’t go camping.