The setup is standard, and there are a few obvious jump scares, but the performances, the cinematography, and the sound design are stellar. It all adds up to a solidly scary movie.
Ethan Hawke plays Ellison, a true crime writer who moves his family into a house where an entire family was killed in the backyard. Ellison wants to write about the family and figure out what happened. He doesn’t tell his wife about the houses history instead lying to her in order to pursue his next book. Little does he know that the evil that lead to the previous owners demise is still lurking in the house.
I love the way this movie is shot. Director Scott Derickson and cinematographer Christopher Norr bathe every scene in darkness. Every room is shrouded in so much shadow that it feels oppressive as if something could jump out at any second. The shadows loom over everything even during the day it feels dark. The framing here slowly builds up the tension and the fear. Every scene generates a sense of unease and tension. By limiting the light sources and allowing for shadows, the film also feels more real and grounded. It makes any fantastical elements feel like they could be happening in our reality.
There are several sequences in this movie that were shot with 8mm film. These sequence are wonderfully unsettling. They were shot using some of the last Kodachrome on the market. It was a film stock that was famous for its vivid color reproduction. The colors in these segments are vivid and beautiful until they become garish and horrid. The flicker of the 8mm film being projected also goes to serve the unease and creepiness of the moment. Finally, they have no accompanying sound. It’s silent 8mm film. The silence creates the most horrifying part as we are not able to break the tension of the moment with sound.
That silence is a wonderful tool used by Marc Aramian the sound designer. Sound designers don’t get enough credit in movies in general especially in horror films. Their work often makes the film. Without Aramian’s sound design, so many moments would fall flat, and that sense of tension that permeates the film would be greatly dissipated. He wields silences like a weapon against the audience. He slowly turns up the heat with subtle ominous tones. He sends us over the edge with unique crescendoes that sound simultaneously like a human scream and an animals roar. It’s great work.
Ethan Hawke is fantastic here. He anchors the film as a man who allows his own obsessions to lead him to some very dark places. He is such a stalwart performer that those moments when he freaks out resonate all the more because of how steady he is throughout the rest of the film. There is a truly great scene between Ellison and his wife Tracy, played by Juliet Rylance. It comes late in the film, and it is just a brilliant show down between these two characters. It is allowed to breathe and play the way the scene needs to. It humanizes their situation. It builds their relationship. It deepens the conflict and sets everyone on a new path for the rest of the film. It’s awesome work from Hawke and Rylance.
What doesn’t work? The setup is pretty standard. Family moves into a new house, there’s something in the house. We’ve seen this before. There’s a nice twist in that he knows the history of the house and she doesn’t, but it’s still a standard setup. The characters also make a lot of bad decisions. Standard horror movie decisions, but bad decisions none the less. Just get out of the house! Just put the evil box of evil back in the attic and leave it alone.
My final complaint is that there were a few too many jump scares. There were some spectacular jump scares in the movie. Don’t get me wrong. But there were some jolts that were so obvious that I rolled my eyes instead of jumping out of my seat. One in particular involves Hawke investigating noises in the house at night. The camera has him framed awkwardly on the left with a perfect amount of space on the right side of the frame for something to jump out. Everything gets real quiet. Suddenly, a face appears on, you guessed it, the right side of the frame. It’s accompanied by a loud music cue. It also looks like it was accomplished with unconvincing cgi. Moments like that don’t spook me, and the movie has a couple of them.
That said, a jump scare later works brilliantly wherein Hawke is looking at a photograph of the backyard. He is trying to make out a small detail. He holds it up to the window looking out onto the real backyard. He lowers the photo to see something in the yard exactly where he was looking. What he sees turns out to be scarier than I anticipated and I got two scares out of one setup. Bad jump scare. Great jump scare. Luckily there are enough great ones to help make up for the bad ones.
The movie also has a delightful sense of humor. Too many scary movies hit one note and just keep pounding that one note. This movie takes the time to have a truly hilarious scene between Hawke and Deputy So and So. (that name is explained in a great scene.) Hawke says he thinks he hear footsteps in the attic. The scene builds from one line to the next as the deputy discusses what small animal might have feet big enough to make a noise. Snake? No. Scorpion? No. Squirrel? That’s more like it. It’s great to be able to laugh during a scary movie.
Overall, I was genuinely freaked out by this movie. There’s a lot of great stuff here. I’d definitely recommend it. It’s my cup of tea. A-