Written by: Scott Derrickson, C. Robert Cargill
Directed by: Scott Derrickson
Starring: Ethan Hawke, Juliet Rylance, Clare Foley
Don't you hate it when you watch a movie, and it's pretty good, but as you're watching it and then when you're mulling it over later, you realize that it could have been great instead? I almost think that Scott Derrickson and his co-writer, C. Robert Cargill, felt the same way. It seems like they had the script for that great movie, and then some dipshit studio suit went and smeared Generico Brand Asshole Jelly ™ all over it, so you can sort of see glimpses of the good stuff through all the crap the distributor glopped on to make sure the stupid tweenieboppers wouldn't get confused because there wasn't any rap on the soundtrack. It seems unlikely to me that they would have gotten right the things they got right, and yet gotten wrong the things they got wrong without someone with far less talent giving the orders.
Ok, I'm really not as down on this movie as the above paragraph makes it seem. It just really pisses me off that Hollywood so frequently ruins a filmmaker's vision and turns a great movie into a mediocre one because they're afraid to take a damn chance. This is the story of Ellison Oswalt (a name Cargill says is an homage to Harlan Ellison and Patton Oswalt, so whatever these guys may be, clearly they're not stupid), a true crime writer who is facing a situation of publish or perish. Sure, he could just write textbooks for the rest of his life, but who wants to do a boring shit job when they could do something they love? Problem is, it's been ten years since his last hit and he needs to get another book on the shelves pronto or start compiling notes for Physics for Poets.
So he uproots his family and moves them to a house where an entire family was hung from a tree in the backyard. All except the young daughter, who disappeared. Of course, he tells his family they're simply moving to the town where it happened, because if they knew he'd moved them into the murder house, the next autograph he'd be signing would be on divorce papers (I really hate the way this plot convention is handled here and in a hundred other similar movies. When she finds out where they are, Ellison's wife flips her shit, and of course she's completely right, except that no supernatural stuff has happened yet. She's right by default, because it's a horror movie, but were this a real life situation she would just be acting like a shrill, unreasonable bitch. I'd love, just once, to see the character who just happens to be right about the horrible danger everyone is in have some motivation for it other than being argumentative for drama's sake). The local sheriff (played by douchebag extraordinaire Fred Thompson) is none too happy about the situation either. Not only does he think what Ellison is doing is in extremely poor taste, he's no fan of the way the writer portrays policemen in his books.
While moving some stuff up to the attic one day, Ellison discovers a box of 8mm film canisters. When he sets up the projector in his study, his reaction is not what most people's would be. The films turn out to feature the murders of not only the family who he plans to write about, but many other families as well, all seemingly murdered by the same killer over the course of decades. As I said, most people would be horrified, but Ellison realizes he's hit an extremely rich vein. Now, instead of one dead family, he can write a book about a serial killer who has been murdering his way across the country since the 60's. One of the local deputies, hopeful of a credit in the book and a little fame of his own, lends a hand with the research. But when Ellison's son Trevor starts sleepwalking and acting like he's possessed, and a face that appears in all of the films starts looking at Ellison when he enhances the images on his computer, it becomes clear that thinking up a punchy title for the new book is the least of Ellison's problems. And then he starts talking to one of his other contacts, a professor who specializes in ancient cults and deities, and things get really unpleasant...
This is probably the closest thing we're ever going to get to a Ramsey Campbell movie. For those of you unfamiliar (and you really should do something about that), Campbell is one of the greatest horror authors in the world. He's a true successor to H.P. Lovecraft, and even improves on the sense of impending dread and helplessness in an uncaring world of immense and implacable supernatural evil pioneered by the Old Providence Ghoul. Never have I read another author who is so relentlessly bleak, who is such a talented emotional terrorist. You just feel icky after reading a Ramsey Campbell story.
Campbell's books aren't especially violent, even when something horrible happens he's a master of using suggestion instead of graphic description, and in his hands that's somehow so much worse. I don't think he could write a happy ending if he tried. The nicest thing of his I've read was about a serial killer who murders people with a goddamn blowtorch. Another theme in his books (and considering his family background it's not surprising why) is domestic decay. The only time the families in his books don't become completely unglued by the end is when they start out that way in the first place. And his protagonists are often writers who stumble into a cosmic horror that threatens everything they know. Author inadvertently moves crumbling family into the path of a pagan deity bent on devouring his daughter and killing everyone else. That's the basic plot of at least three of his books I can think of off the top of my head.
You may have figured out from all the gushing that Ramsey Campbell is one of my favorite authors, so you can understand my disappointment that such a close approximation to his style was so very nearly worthy of the association. Most of it's there. Even the downer ending, which really surprised the hell out of me considering how dumbed down so much of the rest of it was. The worst mistake I think they made was giving the deity (a made-up creature named Bughuul, probably derived from the Middle-English bugge, German boggel-mann, and a few other similar names that all became the now-familiar English bogey, or boogie man) a physical presence. Or at least the physical presence it wound up having. It looks like Abbath from Immortal. Since the occult professor mentions Norwegian black metal at one point, I can't imagine Derrickson doesn't know who that is or what corpsepaint in general looks like, unless that's just a phrase he heard on the internet and thought it sounded cool. Still, it sort of undercuts the menace a little when at any moment you expect the monster to start singing, “Sons of Northern Darkness”.
At the end of the day, it's a better-than-average but frustratingly generic spook flick that should have been way better than it is, and insists on reminding you of that every ten minutes or so by doing something really cool. It's worth a watch, if nothing else to see some of the incredibly dark shit they got away with at the end. And for a fun party game, watch it with a group and have “Blizzard Beasts” queued up on your stereo to blast at maximum volume whenever Bughuul pops up.