What’s so special about Home Movie? After all, it’s just another horror movie about beautiful people getting attacked by possibly demonic forces out in the woods — and creepy children. Sure, it’s filmed with hand-held camcorders so it can be presented as “found-footage”, but we all saw The Blair Witch Project the first time around (and if we didn’t, we probably saw Paranormal Activity. So why did horror fans and indie-critics heap so much adulation on this film upon it’s release?
After actually watching Home Movie, written and directed by first-timer Christopher Denham, the reason for such praise becomes apparent. This film, pastiche of well-worn horror-tropes though it may be, actually has a plot, and characters, that draw the viewer in and keep their eyes drilled to the screen until the final moments. The protagonists, a pair of gorgeous Harvard grads who decide to move to the countryside and their pretty but sullen ten-year old twins, don’t sound like anything unique in the world of horror, but they feel incredibly real.
The dad is David Poe (Adrian Pasdar), a hyper-active man-child who seems born to spend his days planning elaborate adventures to entertain himself as much as his kids. On the weekends, he’s a pastor, but that doesn’t stop him from having a good time at home, especially with his wife. Clare Poe (Cady McClain) is a little more straight-laced, but is usually willing to let her husband talk her into enjoying a little hanky-panky in the shower on their anniversary or allow the children to have ice-cream even when they’ve been naughty.
Perfect as this couple may seem, however, somethings is just not right about their children. Jack and Emily (real-life siblings Austin and Amber Joy Williams) barely talk, never smile, and have a definite problem socializing with other children. We in the audience quickly realize that David and Clare moved to this rural area in an attempt to gain a fresh start for their troubling offspring, and that the decision was largely influenced by Cady’s views on raising difficult children, which come from her career as a child-psychologist.
In an effort to track her progress with the children and her other patients, Cady buys a video-camera to record a video-diary, although David soon co-opts it so that he can live out his own documentarian fantasies. The key to Home Movie‘s success is often in the details, and how naturally they fit together, and while the “found-footage” concept can easily become a gimmick, Denham never lets that happen. The shots are framed far more artistically than your dad’s family vacation videos probably were, but David puts so much passion into creating these ‘living memories’ of his wife and kids that it only seems natural that he would try to create the most arresting visuals possible.
There has also been real thought put into the reasons the camera is on when it’s on, and the way the characters relate to it. David’s need to film everything in the family members’ lives isn’t just a way to view their issues; it’s a troubling symptom of them. The camera is as much of a protagonist as the family members, showing up to annoy Cady when she’s trying to have a serious talk with her husband, and, in the film’s darkest moment, being stolen by the Jack and Emily and used as a tool in (and standing as a symbol of) their rebellion against the adults who seek to keep their most dangerous impulses suppressed.
And their desires are pretty damn scary. As the months in the new house roll on, the children progress from animal cruelty to brutally-physical attacks on classmates. As a man of faith, David starts to believe that his children may be possessed by some other-worldly force, while his wife remains convinced that medical treatment is the best course of action, while also becoming concerned that David’s history as an abused child may be negatively affecting the way he interacts with their kids. It’s a testament to how well the characters are conceived and executed that it’s a genuinely tragic experience to watch this couple — two people who complement each other so well despite David being a priest who doesn’t believe in psychology and Cady being a psychologist who doesn’t believe in God — fall apart as they fail to succeed at the one goal both find most important: raising happy, well-adjusted children.
I won’t give away the ending, but I will say that is far less ambiguous than that of Blair Witch or other similar films. While the issue of what exactly compels Jake and Emily to do such terrible things is never fully resolved, what does become clear is that despite their best intentions, Dave and Cady never had any chance at curing these wayward (to put it mildly) pre-adolescents. They have most of what it takes to be a set of ideal parents, but it’s likely that no-one could remain a sane adult in the face of unrepentant hellions like these.
The DVD version comes with the original trailer and a “making of” documentary feature. As the actual film indicates, all the people involved in Home Movie took all aspects of the production extremely seriously, and there was apparently a genuine desire amongst the cast and crew to make a film that transcended it’s genre-defined boundaries. Hopefully, they have been made as aware as the audience is that they have succeeded.