Theatrical release: 10/12/2012 DVD Date: 02/19/2013
Rating: R Running Time: 110 minutes
Note(s): Original screenplay by Scott Derrickson and C. Robert Cargill.
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Review: This is an odd horror film, one that probably would have worked better had it not included any supernatural elements. But it does and suffers for it.
Ethan Hawke stars as Ellison Oswalt, a true crime writer who enjoyed success a decade ago when he published a bestselling book that uncovered facts missed by the local police. He hasn't published anything since. The local police, of course, have a long memory and don't appreciate that he's recently moved into a home in their community, which was the site of a horrific crime: a family of four hung from a tree in the backyard, the youngest child missing. The crime remains unsolved.
In the attic Ethan finds a box of old 8mm films. As he watches the first, he is horrified to discover that someone has filmed the crime that was committed in that very backyard. The other films show similar crimes of families being murdered. Enlisting the help of an ambitious police deputy, one willing to work with Ethan as long as his superiors don't learn of what he's doing, and one who wants the credit if Ethan's future book is a success, researches the other crimes, which took place over a multi-decade period in various places across the country. Meanwhile, strange things have been happening in the house …
There are lots of things wrong with this film. Let's start with how it looks. Dark. Very dark. So dark that it's hard to see exactly what's happening for much of the movie. Ellison must have an aversion to turning on the lights because most of the time he's sitting in a darkened room with just a desk lamp on (when he's not watching the films with the lights out, which he does a lot) or wandering about with a flashlight. Even when he's pinning notes on a cork board, he works basically in the dark. Which, metaphorically speaking, he is since he can't figure out what the rest of us have already. Even the clueless deputy cop figures it out before Ellison. Which leads to the screenplay that is all over the place. As I previously mentioned, the film would have been better told without supernatural elements, but since it isn't it's a bit strange how poorly they're integrated into the story here. They sort of randomly appear for no rhyme or reason. Possibly the scenes are intended for shock value, but even that doesn't work. And if the family is supposedly broke, how can they afford to move into a mansion after they leave the haunted tract house they've been living in? It's as if the screenwriters think we're not paying attention, never a good sign for a film. The disappointing ending is contextually predictable given all that preceded it.
An odd horror film, indeed. Maybe worth a rental for a popcorn night at home when absolutely nothing else is on, but otherwise give it a pass.