Cast : Starring Ethan Hawke (Gattaca, Training Day) as the troubled, driven writer Ellison, relative newcomer Juliet Rylance as his supportive wife Tracy, and written/directed by Scott Derrickson (Exorcism of Emily Rose).
Plot : Ellison Oswalt is a now-stagnant true-crime writer. Desperate for inspiration and his next big hit, he decides to move his family into a murder house and write about it. In the attic, he finds horrific ‘home movies’ depicting grizzly murders, and strange things start to happen around his house.
Good points :
• After about half an hour, the film has a great sense of foreboding dread.
• He makes friends with an affable rookie police deputy, who looks like Alberto Del Rio.
• Despite the plot-device to stay in the obviously haunted house (“I need this novel!”) thankfully common sense prevails and furthers the storyline.
• The antagonist is pretty freaky-looking and the back story is cool enough.
• It was cool to see Ellison editing film footage by hand.
• The murders shown on tape are not explicitly graphic (like we don’t SEE gore), but are definitely heightened for all their worth by showcasing them to low-resolution, shaky Super-8 home videos from decades ago. We get the setup, and the idea, it’s done very well. The gore isn’t needed, we see all we need to – great stuff.
• There are a ton of music-montages, and although I quite enjoyed them, there may be a few too many. The musical choices/freaky beats are pretty cool.
Bad points :
• Unfortunately, the scares are generally relegated to “STARTLING!” as opposed to genuinely scary moments : OK there’s nothing behind you OMG NOW THERE IS! I’m looking and there’s nothing there OMG YOU’RE RIGHT IN FRONT OF THE CAMERA! That kind of really lame shock-horror is the pay-off for some excellent dread.
• The film is bloody shot in the dark – roughly 20% of the screen can be seen even during the day time. Listen, exposition during the day, eating breakfast, turn on the damn light. There are points where this is done for effect (i.e. focus on the tree outside) but the whole film is like this.
• The cast are nothing special. I’m not exactly rooting for any of them. The kids are alright as well. You can see the wife’s point – she’s right! – but there’s nothing to her character, she’s just normal. I actually cared more for Del Rio than the rest really.
The “death” makeup on the kids is pretty poor.
• These kids are given a bit too too much screen time, which goes from freaky to ok to by the end, kinda lame and cheesy.
• The final scene is not executed well – unfortunately. The idea is grand and fitting itself, but it wasn’t done well.
Overall : The film is marred by a not-particularly warm cast and predictable BOO! scares and a disappointingly-executed ending, but despite that, it creates great tension & dread – it’s an enjoyable, effective horror film. I’d recommend.