The Unknowable Casts An Intoxicating Spell in a Relatively Short Amount of Time [Review]

The Unknowable is the latest project from Zachary Donohue, whose bone-chilling debut, The Den, remains one of the best, if not the best, examples of Internet horror. After scaring us off our computers, Donohue turns his attention to true crime, with a zippy faux-documentary split into ten easily digestible chapters that clocks in at less than an hour but effortlessly does the job of features twice its length. Presented in stylish monochrome, The Unknowable recalls The Twilight Zone and Unsolved Mysteries, with an accurate and utterly period-specific voiceover that’s, crucially, played completely straight.

Ostensibly about the Wilcox family, who moved to a remote property in the Mojave Desert, in 1948, and got decidedly more than they bargained for, Donohue’s latest – for which he also wrote the script – manages to cover aliens, religious zealots, a serial killer, and a witch. And yet, it doesn’t feel overstuffed, even if the mile-a-minute narration knocks the pacing off ever so slightly at times. The images are stunning and hugely evocative, a stirring mixture of what looks to be stock footage and newly shot stuff with the actors, none of whom actually speak onscreen. In fact, the only voice present throughout The Unknowable belongs to Sean Burgos, who plays narrator and consistently holds our rapt attention.

Burgos is a prolific voice actor, with credits on everything from Evangelion to Call of Duty. He’s also played narrator several times over the years so it’s unsurprising he nails it with a commanding, old-timey timber that’s never boring. The Unknowable immediately feels like a real production as a result, not least because the central mystery is so utterly compelling. When we meet them, the Wilcoxes – husband Thaddeus (Chris Voss) and wife Fanny (Ally Avey), alongside Fanny’s mute sister, Mabel (Sarah Eisenberg – are trying to make contact with a strange alien species, but in doing so, they unwittingly draw the attention of a serial killer named Angus, aka the clown with no paint on his face (an alias that’s just clunky enough to be real).

Kevin Swanstrom doesn’t have any lines as the murderer, but his magnetic gurning to camera is genuinely terrifying, which speaks to how impactful The Unknowable is as both a fascinating docuseries and a frightening horror tale – The Grabber could never. Likewise, Thaddeus’s DIY helmet is super creepy and there are tons of brilliantly done practical scares, including the alien monsters themselves, which look like wandering brains with their exposed spinal cords dragging along behind them. Elsewhere Agatha (Kimberly Ables Jindra), Mabel’s childhood caretaker, is another ominous presence who makes herself known with zero dialogue. Even if she wasn’t a witch, she’d still be completely terrifying.

Considering how much of horror these days is tell rather than show, it’s wonderful to see a group of performers tasked with communicating without words, and doing such an impressive job of it to boot. In the case of Avey, the actor doesn’t even open her eyes until the series’ final moments, so her work here is especially memorable. We infer everything we need to know about Thaddeus and Fanny, as well as their complex relationship with Mabel, from their body language and wordless interactions, which is no small feat. Donohue’s bizarre story is an engrossing mystery in its own right too, and all credit must go to him for crafting it in such a way that makes you want to keep watching. Ten instalments seem like a lot, but The Unknowable leaves you wanting more. In fact, it arguably works better watched in increments than all in one go.

This faux docuseries would pair nicely with Something in the Dirt, Benson and Moorhead’s latest bizarro sci-fi offering, which raised considerably more questions than it answered. Their movie also traffics in strange, evocative imagery, characters who know more than they’re letting on, and it even uses narration as a way to anchor the proceedings (though Benson and Moorhead’s is obviously less reliable than Donohue’s). It seems like damning with faint praise to say that The Unknowable doesn’t overstay its welcome, but given that true crime is mostly fluff and over-the-top dramatics – to its increasingly uncomfortable detriment – Donohue should be commended for keeping things tight and having the confidence to present this as a fully-fleshed out idea. With any luck, he’ll find plenty more creepy fake stories to tell in further series.

Catch the first episode of The Unknowable on YouTube now

Director(s): Zach Donohue
Writer(s): Zach Donohue
Stars: Sean Burgos, Chris Voss, Kevin Swanstrom, Ally Alvey
Release date: TBC
Language: English
Run Time: 38 minutes (10 instalments)

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