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Rick McGrath [Film Festival 10.24.08] movie review horror

Year: 2008
Release date: Unknown
Director: Christopher Denham
Writers: Christopher Denham
IMDB: link
Trailer: link
Review by: Dr. Nathan
Rating: 10 out of 10

If you’ve ever thought it might be a nice family treat to buy a home video camera and capture all those cute Kodak moments of kiddie kinship, holidays, birthdays, and sitting down at the dining room table to carve up your parents, then Home Movie is the perfect antidote for that misguided idea. This truly disturbing movie, written and directed by Christopher Denham, is thus far the only TAD premiere Dr Nathan has experienced which actually, really gave me that deep-down visceral sense of dread and foreboding. Fantastic. And, equally surprising, what at first appears to be detrimental to the movie – shaky handheld camera and very bad sound – turn out to be indispensable to the general zeitgeist of the story itself.

And what a story.

The picture-perfect Poe family – Lutheran minister Dad (Adrian Pasdar), child psychologist Mom (Cady McClain) and their twin 10-year-olds Jack and Emily (Austin and Amber Williams) have recently moved to an old upstate New York farmhouse. Mom wants to start doing video reports as part of her professional work, so she buys and brings home a video camera. Whoops, big mistake. Ditsy Dad can’t keep his idiot hands off the thing, and either obsessively films members of the family, or has Mom film him, or, best yet, sets the camera up like a voyeuristic eye in a corner of a room and simply lets her roll. What we see is the usual inane home movie fare – boring birthdays, family pets, holiday fun – along with a little of the psychopathologic – Dad tries to film Mom in the shower, Dad has a thing about dressing up in costumes, and perhaps the most damning: both parents tend to use the camera as a kind of impersonal entity they feel compelled to confess to… much like the way contestants babble away at a private camera on TV “reality” shows. Question is – who’s watching?

OK, they’re a slightly odd bunch, but aren’t all kids when it comes to being stalked by a too-happy adult with a video camera? You either act the fool or tend to clam up and hope they’ll go away, and that’s what the Poe kids do when Mom and/or Dad disguise themselves behind the glass eye of a camera and attempt to interact with their sullen brood. Sounds boring, yes, but it is this initial sense of “normalcy” which has to dominate the audience in order to properly set up and showcase the abnormalities that follow. And follow they do.

I’m not going to list the specific activities, but what Dr Nathan experienced is an atrocity exhibition of time-related home movie vignettes, each one slightly growing in shock and disgust in an ultimate slow burn of increasing horror and dread. Let’s just say we start with insects and pets and build up to people. It’s absolutely fantastic, and one of the best examples of creeping fright I’ve ever experienced.

Denham’s ability to do this with basically nothing but the homely and familiar is pure genius. The sophistication of this movie is actually breathtaking, as viewers really don’t grasp the full nature of the total horror until virtually the end of the movie, at which time all the built-up tension snaps like a neck and you realize the complete extent of the full deception, which you now see begins with the very first frame of the flick, as an unidentified someone muses over a TV screen list of typical home movies — birthday, backyard fun, Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter. It’s only at the end that you discover who is setting up and replaying these little scenes for us, and that is when the awful, ultimate realization sets in. This is an amazing accomplishment, and causes you to re-evaluate all after the fact – an exercise that actually increases your sense of the uncanny and may keep you up long after the story is over as you review and identify all that you felt innocently went before.

But wait, there’s more. Sure, this story is really creepy, but Denham works his message on a number of levels, not the least is the power of the video camera. In fact, one could say the whole crazy story begins and ends with the camera, which appears to give control over the situation to the person holding it, but is in reality the key to the unstated and unshown plot which comes back to nail your synapses to the wall at a later date. Denham also effectively skewers society’s two-sided coin of dealing with wayward children. There’s a telling scene in which religious Dad and scientist Mom relate meeting at university. “What do religion and science have in common?”, they ask each other. “Faith”, is the response. How bloody ironically true, as we’re treated to Dad trying to exorcize the demons out of our twin devils, and Mom, with her Rorschach test, doling out psychosomatic drugs by the handful. Obviously, neither work – except on the parents, whose faith in the external solution is sadly misplaced. Even the use of twin children is inspired and played to maximum effect. There’s a subtle doubling that creeps in from the twin’s unfathomable world, with two pets, two beds, two kid’s rooms, two teeth marks, and even a twinning of the parents, who come to represent two sides of the same unsuspecting (until it’s too late) coin.

One warning, though: you may find yourself being a little antsy at the beginning, as we apparently start off from a deceivingly “normal” situation – hey, let’s watch some home movies. Our initial impression is that Dad is an overbearing, intrusive jerk, that Mom seems little more than a giggling girl, that little untoward seems to be happening, and that the camerawork and gawd-awful sound levels are off-putting. Don’t fall for it. In hindsight you realize Denham did all this on purpose to deflect our attention from the little horrors that pop up and are quickly cut from at the end of each vignette. Clever lad. Once you’re past this phase the plot picks up and sucks you in, but if I were to see this movie again I’d certainly pay more attention to the subtle hints Denham drops at the beginning, like the way in which the video tape is often stopped and rewound so a piece of a scene can be shown again. That may be the scariest aspect of this movie – and you’ll understand why at the end.

As with the “reality horror” genre, the audio and video are totally amateur in setup and execution. That’s way harder to do than it appears, but this example is light years ahead of the visual mush that is Blair Witch. Our actors are all excellent – again, acting like you’re not acting is difficult – and most of the usual technical stuff, such as editing, is hardly needed as most of the time the camera is simply set in a corner or on a shelf or box and impassively records the action. Even that technique tends to give the video a kind of creepy reality of its own, dragging us in as often-awkward voyeurs, witnessing private family problems we really don’t want to know about.

If you get a chance to see this – see it. Really, it’s tough to think of something I don’t like about this highly ingenious and horrific story. Dr Nathan is quite stingy with giving full marks, but Home Movie is absolutely guaranteed to start you squirming… during the show, and best of all, I’ll bet every time you think about it. This is a Home Movie that could single-handedly kill off video camera sales. Or severely reduce the birth rate. Bravo!

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EvilEye (13 years ago) Reply

Amazing film. It just played at Proctors (Schenectady, NY) during the midnight hour on Halloween. Been thinking a lot about the film, and your review has helped me to come to grips with its message. Initially, when daddy asks his daughter if there is evil in the house, she indicates that there is, and my initial thought was that she was simply referring to herself and her brother. Thus, the message of the film would be as simple as "evil is evil and no amount of religion or therapy can fix that".

By films end I thought that the message might instead be that the evil was actually the parent's faith in religion and therapy (and behavior modifying drugs), but the problem I had with that reading was that neither of the parents seemed particularly overbearing in the practice of their "faith", at least not until after the children's behavior had already progressed to very disturbing levels.

Reading your review, however, I am ready to consider a 3rd reading, which is that the distance that the ever-present camera creates between the children and their parents is the true evil in the house. An evil, of course, that the children ultimately turn upon their parents.


Dr Nathan (13 years ago) Reply

Yes, I think the camera is the instigator, but is in itself not evil -- just the way in which it's used... for another chilling version of families and media, check out JG Ballard's short story, "The Intensive Care Unit"


Anonymous (11 years ago) Reply

You may want to not actually spoil the endings to movies in your reviews.

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