There are things to criticize about Home Movie. There are times when there probably was a “road not taken” that was more promising than where the film in fact went. But even given all that, it’s a film that deserves a thumbs up. It’s a good movie, that could have been even better.
A family has just moved to a home out in the woods, presumably close enough to civilization to at least be able to regularly commute to where people are, since the father is a Lutheran pastor and the mother is a child psychiatrist, but far enough out that the family is virtually never shown interacting with anyone other than each other.
They have two children, a boy and a girl, twins, age 10. One can infer mathematically that they are adopted (the parents reminisce about meeting ten years ago, right around when these kids would have been born), but that’s not addressed explicitly, nor is there any evidence at all that they were from a previous marriage of one of the parents.
If they are adopted, there’s no indication when they were adopted. There’s no mention of their having been part of the family in their early childhood, and in the family photos that happen to be shown they’re at least close to their present age, so it’s possible they are relatively new to the family. But on the other hand, were that the case you’d think given some of what happens in the movie that the characters would make reference to that.
The gimmick of the film is that it’s made to look like everything we’re seeing and hearing are video clips they shot of each other over the course of less than a year with their video camera—first just random family holiday type stuff, and later some efforts to document a family crisis and how they sought to deal with it. So it’s handheld cameras, and people out of the frame, and awkward stopping and starting—that kind of thing.
Before moving on to more of the substance of the story, let’s talk about this style. It works to some extent, but not completely.
The problem is, what we see is really not consistent with the notion that this is all unedited found footage.
For example, sometimes when a person is going to film himself, you first see that he’s turning the camera on and then walking over to sit in a chair or wherever he’s going to be. But other times, a shot starts with him already in the chair talking to the camera.
But if these were the raw tapes from the video camera, wouldn’t we see the person turning on the camera every time in that situation? And if instead this is minimally edited footage with the clearly unnecessary stuff cut out, wouldn’t those few seconds where the person is turning on the camera and getting situated be gone from every scene?
Occasionally we see an effect meant to look like the video is fast forwarding or rewinding (or really the forward search or reverse search is being used, where you’re seeing the footage at a faster speed forward or backward). But what’s that supposed to represent? That stuff wouldn’t be visible on raw video tapes. Are we supposed to understand instead that we are watching along with someone (some police investigator or something), who is occasionally going back over some material or fast forwarding? There’s no other indication that this is the case.
In the second half of the film especially, sometimes a person is talking into the camera, and then as you continue to hear their voice you see some other footage, turning the speaking into a voiceover, which clearly indicates editing.
Certainly there are times it’s somewhat implausible, though not impossible, that people would keep filming. That’s a common criticism of films shot in this kind of Blair Witch style.
On the whole that’s probably a little less blatant a problem with this movie though. It varies, but there are scenes when the person filming turns off the camera abruptly right when something shocking happens, where you catch a glimpse of something horrible but only for a split second, which is both realistic and adds to the general mystery and creepiness of the film. There are other times that, yeah, they’re fudging a bit by having the filming continue.
It’s like they wanted to have enough of the trappings of amateur, unedited home video to create the impression that that’s what we’re watching, but they weren’t meticulous about remaining consistent with that when they couldn’t figure out how to do what they wanted to do if they stuck to those constraints. If you stop and think about what you’re seeing, the inconsistencies are there, but if you just accept that you’re probably never going to get total stylistic coherence in this type of movie, maybe that’s not that big a deal.
Anyway, the 10 year olds are really, really, creepy, weird kids.
They don’t utter a word until fairly late. In reading reviews of this movie online, I saw some criticism of this point, basically saying that by not having the children express themselves verbally, the film passed up one of the ways to show just how crazy or evil or whatever they are. I disagree. Their silence is far, far more ominous and indicative of something seriously wrong with them. It heightens the mystery and suspense.
They’re usually looking down or turning away from the camera or hovering in the shadows. The percentage of time you can clearly see their faces must be something like a fifth as often as you’d expect in home movies, if that. Which again heightens the aura of mystery and otherness about them.
When you can see their faces, they look glum and disengaged from anyone except each other. The general sense you get from these kids is maybe a combination of autism (or at least Asperger’s) and malevolence.
They’re certainly attached to each other. They are always together, unless forcibly separated, like when sent to different rooms. They have separate beds, but the parents discover that they end up in the same bed by morning. Though for the most part they don’t talk, they are occasionally shown muttering gibberish to each other, apparently a kind of secret language or code they’ve developed where they can at least get the gist of what each other is communicating.
Then their ill behavior escalates. First it’s little things like the boy purposely hitting a baseball way over the father’s head just to be a jerk and make someone fetch it. Then when it’s the father’s turn to bat, the boy makes like he’s going to pitch the baseball to him, but instead throws a rock as hard as he can directly at him.
But it gets a lot worse. Soon the parents discover one by one the family pets killed in gruesome ways, including the cat nailed into the wall crucifixion style on Christmas.
To this point, the movie to me is actually scarier than a horror movie, because it’s so much more real. From what I understand, a fascination with causing pain and death to animals in childhood is a classic indication of a psychopath, or of the kind of person who grows up to be a serial killer.
Some semi-human monster chopping people’s heads off in a slasher movie is more artificially scary—scary by the conventions of the genre rather than inherently. But this material is much more unnerving, because these kids are such real life monsters.
They’re rotten kids capable of horrific cruelty, and they’re kids I can imagine meeting outside the context of a horror movie, which is what’s so attention-grabbing.
I could feel in my own reaction the difference from a typical scary movie. Just in terms of feeling my heart beat a little faster, or sensing myself tense up when a door is opened and you’re pretty sure there’s going to be some further evidence of what these emotionless budding serial killers are capable of.
In some ways, it’s so effective that I had a little trouble sticking with the film, because it was getting to me.
It’s not just the creepiness of their behavior, though. I think what I was feeling most is the enormity of the parents’ plight, of knowing that your children are this insane, this out there. That people that you love, that you’re trying to love, that you’re trying to believe in, that you’re trying to help, are this malevolent, this unreachable.
Being the parent of a seriously handicapped child in a wheelchair, a blind child, a deaf child, even a severely retarded child, is painful and difficult in a different way. You’re hurt by how limited the child is, how maybe your relationship with them is limited in certain ways.
But you can still love them and be loved by them. Their disabilities don’t preclude connection and warmth.
With these kids it’s more like if your child is severely autistic, only worse. If you have a really uncommunicative autistic child who won’t accept a hug, won’t look you in the eye, won’t talk to you, won’t be cooperative, etc., I think most parents would still convince themselves that the child loves them, that there’s a connection there, that it’s just a matter of the child being unable to express it. So you just kind of assume it, or you infer it from extremely limited evidence, because you really want to believe it.
But with these kids, there’s that same terrible otherness where they’re seemingly closed off from your affection, except when they occasionally do break out of their shell it’s always to do something monstrously cruel. So it’s not that they can’t express what’s inside them, can’t express what they really are, just that they express it very infrequently. And when you do get those rare glimpses of them before they disappear back into themselves, it’s always something terrifying.
Just an awful, awful situation for parents to be in. This kind of psychopathic personality disorder or whatever it is is perhaps the worst possible disability to deal with in your child.
When this movie hits that issue hard, it’s powerful and unnerving in a way that extremely few movies I’ve seen are. To the point, like I say, that at times I almost had to stop watching it because it was bothering me so much.
One can certainly quibble with how the parents are depicted as reacting. For a good portion of the movie they continue to happily film their holidays, with Dad dressed up as Santa Claus, and efforts to kiddingly chide their shy children into speaking for the camera and all that, well beyond when you would think parents would have figured out there are major, major issues with these kids. I mean, the viewers know these kids are monsters well before the parents pick up on it.
Some of that maybe you could excuse as denial. They don’t see it because they don’t want to see it. Who could ever want to admit that one has children as messed up and inhuman as these?
Still, it strains credulity.
Then the film does two things I would have preferred it not do.
First, when the parents finally do get a clue, the psychiatrist mother looks for purely neurological or psychological explanations, and for appropriate drugs to prescribe. The father falls back on religion and supernaturalism and convinces himself the house is haunted or Satan has possessed the children and they need an exorcism.
Actually the beginnings of that I’m fine with. When the mother comes upon circumstantial evidence that her husband might be abusing the children, and sees that as a possible psychological cause of why they’re as messed up as they are, it adds another intriguing angle to things.
But beyond that, it reduces the parents to types instead of individuals. One can imagine the people putting the script together—“OK, why don’t we have one of them be a psychiatrist and one some kind of clergy, and we’ll use that to show the limitations of both approaches to this kind of evil”—it’s just much too pat, much too simplistic.
Heck, the father’s not even a Catholic and not even particularly fundamentalist up to this point. He’s a bland Lutheran, with an inherently goofy personality, always mugging for the camera and trying to get his wife and kids caught up in his joyful silliness. (He’s frankly annoying.) His transition to some kind of stereotypical religious nut doing a makeshift exorcism isn’t convincing.
But the other move the film makes that I think is a mistake is it escalates the children’s behavior even further, and feels in its latter stages much more like a standard horror movie.
What was an effectively unsettling study of mental illness and its heartbreaking effect on a family becomes an action thriller about whom the kids will kill, how they’ll do it, who will escape, whether the kids will get caught or how, etc.
As far as that later material goes, it’s not that it isn’t handled well. I was still caught up in the film, still interested in how things would turn out. Judged only by the late portion where it’s more purely a horror movie, it’s better than the average movie of that genre that I’ve seen. Of ones I’ve written about, for instance, it’s up there at or a little above Them, and clearly above Cabin Fever or Penny Dreadful. If this movie had been unambiguously of that genre from the beginning, I’d still give it a thumbs up.
So the last third or so of the movie is good, maybe even very good for a horror movie. But it’s a noticeable step down from the more realistic first two-thirds.
Bottom line though is Home Movie creeped me out more than any movie in memory. This is one film that’s hard to get out of your mind. Whether that’s more a reason to see a movie or to avoid it I’m not sure.