Review by Damon Rickard
Stars Ethan Hawke, Juliet Rylance, James Ransone, Fred Dalton Thompson & Vincent D’ononfrio
Written by C Robert Cargill & Scott Derrickson
Certification UK 15
Opens October 5th 2012 (UK)
Runtime 110 minutes
Directed by Scott Derrickson
True crime writer Ellison Oswald (Hawke) is desperately trying to recapture the success that his first novel brought him. He continually moves his family from place to place, living just doors away from the crime scenes he investigates. Dwindling book sales mean his is struggling to maintain the lifestyle he created for his family with the large house become to costly to keep. In an effort to drive down costs whilst seeking his next big story he ultimately buys the incredibly cheap family house where the previous occupents were killed in and a child went missing from.
Shortly after moving in, Ellison discovers of a box in the attic of the Oswald’s new home with old cine film footage, spanning 3 decades. He quietly sets it up in his new office and what he finds on the films becomes a game changer and Ellison found he was onto a story that would not only put himself in danger but his whole family too.
C Robert Cargill has crafted a horror story that maybe retreads ground that Hollywood has tried on several occasions to cover but does it head and shoulders above the rest of the big budget offerings that have gone before it. The overall story may not necessarily be something you haven’t seen before but the execution (excuse the pun – when you watch it, you’ll get that) is certainly done in a way that avoids all the pitfalls that normal big budget horror fare falls into.
This coupled with Derrickson’s superb direction makes for one of the scariest films for not only this year but for a number of years. Derrickson previously showed us his horror hand with The Exorcism of Emily Rose where he successfully merged drama and horror in a way I hadn’t seen before. He created some truly creepy moments in that film with a deft touch, avoiding the requirement for any extreme violence with the fear played out through his leads. The performances he manages to get are half the battle here and you genuinely feel that Ethan Hawke is slowly becoming more and more terrified as the film progresses. In turn you mirror this in yourself as the tension ratchets up.
I mentioned that the films pulls off the tricks that are usually missed and this is true. The biggest one being so many modern horror films (discounting the slashers) forget to introduce a sense of dread into the proceedings. If you don’t know what the outcome for your hero could be, why should you be frightened of it? So to cover this off we are given something right from the beginning in a scene that I certainly didn’t expect. I don’t want to spoil anything for you so I won’t go into detail here. The film doesn’t need any real gore or excessive violence (one of the scariest scenes cuts from the nasty stuff to reaction, leaving your mind to fill in the gaps which can often be more powerful) and relies on intense imagery to leave you feeling unsettled. By doing this and keeping you on edge it makes it much easier to play with your fears, mixing genuinely creepy moments with more standard shocks (loud bumps and the like) and all work. Well I say all, there were two pieces, one with an image on Hawke’s laptop and another where he wanders round the house looking for what is going bump in the night that, for me, were a bit more average. However, that said, these two scenes will still play extremely well in the mulitplexes. This may just be me being a tad fussy and they probably stick out more as slightly poor relations to other parts of the film due to the overall high quality of the film.
The other ways in which they pull this film off is by keeping it believable that the family wouldn’t be rushing out of the house immediately. This is done through Hawke’s character’s continual attempts to rationalise everything that is happening and it is done successfully. Part of this is through his desire to be famous again and it is here that Hawke’s casting in his first horror film is a masterstroke. Ellison Oswald, for all intents and purposes, is not a very nice person. He’s a loving dad and devoted husband but as soon as his story comes to him, his family take second place and they become the forgotten element of his life as he throws himself into his work. With a lesser talented actor and indeed a less likeable actor, this character could have lacked any form of sympathy but Hawke plays him brilliantly. So whilst he maintains his standing as arsehole of the house, you still find yourself rooting for him. Without this, again you wouldn’t care what happened to him. And this, dear reader, is the basis of a scary film being scary. Caring. If you don’t care then it’s not scary, no matter how well the film has been made. This is why horror films are so subjective. You may not connect to characters that others do and this takes you out of the film and subsequently out of the scares. This is why Sinister worked so well for me, it kept me engaged all the way, even throwing in some light relief with Deputy So and So (again you need to see it for that to make more sense).
I genuinely found this a scary film and I’ve seen a lot of horror and, without wanting to sound pretentious, not a lot really scares me these days as I’ve become accustomed to the tricks of the trade. I can’t guarantee this for you but being a gambling man, I’d happily put money on the fact you will find the same.
I have given this five stars as I couldn’t find much to fault with it. Is it as well crafted a piece of work as Saving Private Ryan? Well if we look at it in terms of within its own genre then yes it is. It stands above its peers. The performances are very good (Juliet Rylance perhaps reduced to little more than the good housewife role but she performs it well), especially young Michael Hall D’Addario who plays Hawke’s son, Trevor. The dialogue is slick, the humour fits and doesn’t feel forced, the pacing is spot on and it delivers what it promises. Need I say more.