Chattanooga Film Festival 2022: Disquieting Depression Fills The Unsettling

Image Courtesy of The Unsettling film

Airbnb horror is firmly establishing itself as an emerging subgenre in horror. Recent films like The Rental and Superhost have injected new versions of psychopaths into hotel horror scenarios, but this may be the first occasion of a ghost story. As a haunted house movie, I was immediately drawn to the title of Harry Owens’ film, The Unsettling. Warping the sounds of those creeks in unfamiliar houses into oppressive claustrophobia and cause for anxiety is apt for a movie that does exactly that.  

The Unsettling details a couple’s vacation together after the tragic loss of their child. Abena (Zephani Idoko) and Kwame (Bambadjan Bamba) arrive at a house in L.A. for some time together to reconnect, but from the moment they arrive, Abena feels a disquieting presence. Her mood entirely changes from the smiling and laughing woman that Kwame arrives with into someone frantic and filled with anxiety. Claiming there’s something in the house with them. 

Abena looks over her shoulder in The Unsettling
Image courtesy of Chattanooga Film Festival

At the start of the film, there’s a lot worth noting. But to suggest Abena is okay when they arrive at the house doesn’t seem right. The distance between her and Kwame in the taxi on their way to their summertime dwelling speaks volumes. Additionally, the nightmares she has as they arrive suggest Abena is doing her best to control and disguise her grief with the mask of a fake smile.  

There’s no denying The Unsettling is a slow roll from the start. Yet the build-up of foreboding moments, created through Abena’s current haunting and her flashbacks to that fateful day, engages the viewer and pushes the story along. When Kwame mentions that their friends from the area, Vivian (Libby Munro) and Anthony (Benedikt Sebastian), will be visiting, there is a break in the otherwise well-paced trip. However, just when I felt Owens’ film was slowing down in its second act, a scene of immense omnipotent dread was cast over what should have been a merry reunion of friends.  

It suddenly became clear as Abena tensed up that this film wasn’t just about the ghastly monster looming over her shoulder. Abena’s shock leads her into a full panic attack, and after witnessing an earlier event with an iron, I understood what Owens’ script was documenting. With Abena slowing down from her everyday life, all her pent-up emotions hit her all at once. Depression can be haunting. It follows you everywhere, hitting you at critical moments like an onslaught of tidal wave proportions. Abena is in the thick of it with nothing to keep her mind occupied. Her journey to wellness is filled with her husband’s dismissals of “snap out of it” and inability to understand her emotional suffering.  

A hooded figure stands against a backdrop of red curtains in The Unsettling
Image Courtesy of The Unsettling film

I felt deep relatable empathy for Abena throughout her struggle. Amending your mental health in any capacity, let alone in the wake of a tragedy, is a hard fight. Abena’s loss is something she’ll never truly get over, only learning to adjust to living in the shadow of it over time. A fantastic opposition character is created in Kwame as a mirror for people who can’t, or are unwilling to, comprehend depression sufferers, but in Abena’s alienation, Owens’ script really shines. Having moved into this home as a break or “interlude” as it’s referred to, devoid of memories or decorations of any kind and bone-chillingly cold in the L.A. summertime, makes for the perfect metaphor of the soul-crushing emptiness Abena feels throughout The Unsettling.

Owens uses some excellent practical effects in crafting The Unsettling’s monster. Chloë Caro’s Mother character looks like a modern version of The Shining’s bathtub-occupying woman in room 237 and is wholly effective as the sinister force. The CGI effects of dark shrouds descending on the house or A Nightmare on Elm Street-inspired malevolence through glass are some of the better uses of the medium I’ve seen in recent memory.

The Unsettling is also another haunted house film at the Chattanooga Film Festival (the other being Niall Owens Gateway) that understands the importance of outstanding sound design. I can’t imagine the movie would have been half as enthralling without Josh Eckberg and company’s whispers, knocks, and screams. The performances are excellent, especially from the captivating vulnerability Zephani Idoko infuses into Abena, and Harry Owens proves himself a writer-director worth keeping your eye on. The culmination of these efforts amounts to a terror imposed onto the audience that is audacious and spellbinding. 

Abena and Vivian talk on the couch in The Unsettling
Image Courtesy of The Unsettling film

This movie profoundly affected me in ways I wasn’t prepared for. The Unsettling is more than just a creepy haunted house horror movie, but it resonates invasively as mental health horror to a disturbing degree. While I felt some moments could have been better explained, The Unsettling’s surprising climax hits all of the right horror notes. The film’s opening is integral to its ending, symmetrically folding in on itself like a beautiful folk-horror fable. Viewers paying attention at the start will definitely enjoy the payoff. In the end, it’s the reflection of self and the mask of our outward presentations that Owens’ film picks at.  

The Unsettling is still playing at the Chattanooga Film Festival. Badge prices have been reduced to $32 for the last day of new festival content. Audiences can enjoy the World Premiere of Night Shift and spend tomorrow with over thirty features and seventy shorts of the remaining available content. Get some bang for your buck here and take in World Premieres like The Ones You Didn’t Burn and The Leech or festival darlings Honeycomb and Landlocked. 

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Written by Sean Parker

Living just outside of Boston, Sean has always been facinated by what horror can tell us about contemporary society. He started writing music reviews for a local newspaper in his twenties and found a love for the art of thematic and symbolic analysis. Sean joined Horror Obsessive at it's inception, and is currently the site's Creative Director. He produces and edits the weekly Horror Obsessive podcast for the site as well as his interviews with guests. He has recently started his foray into feature film production as well, his credits include Alice Maio Mackay's Bad Girl Boogey, Michelle Iannantuono's Livescreamers, and Ricky Glore's upcoming Troma picture, Sweet Meats.

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