Desperation drove me and my friend to this, me after having spent six straight days in my apartment since the subways weren't working post hurricane Sandy, and my friend having had no electricity or water for that time. Once the subway was partially working, we both had to get out, and this was the only thing we hadn't seen and that had gotten moderately good reviews. Turns out, to our mutual surprise, it turned out to be pretty good, and was definitely fucking terrifying. Oh, and by the way, there was one infant and two toddlers in the theater as the fucking terrifying R-rated movie unfolded.
We open with a movie of a family, hoods over their heads and nooses around their necks. Someone is in a tree sawing off a branch, and as it falls, the family rises into the air and is hung. We then join Ethan Hawke as Ellison Oswalt, author of a true crime bestseller, Kentucky Blood. He and his wife Tracy and daughter and son are moving into a new house. The daughter doesn't want to be there but Ellis insists that his "new book is here." The sheriff stops by to tell Ellis he doesn't like his view of law enforcement, and he finds his moving into that house in "extremely poor taste." Ellis' wife asks if they've moved "two houses down from a crime scene," and Ellis says no. Technically correct, but he doesn't tell her that they are moving IN to a crime scene, as is made clear a moment later, when Ellis goes out back and we see the tree, the one branch still hanging down. This tree will be conspicuously just outside the window during several scenes.
Background info continues piling up quickly. Ellis' last book was quite some time ago, and his fortunes have fallen precipitously since then. He "just needs another hit." The family is in difficult financial straits. Ellis tried long ago to write fiction, but no one liked it. His wife tells him that if it doesn't work out this time, she will take the kids and leave. There is a rule Ellis has to live by, which is to keep the door to his office closed, since apparently in the past one of the kids walked in and saw a bunch of gory photos and was traumatized. And soon Ellis is becoming pretty good fiends with the whiskey bottle.
Things soon start going bump in the night, requiring a fair amount of Ellis walking around the darkened house, wife and kids apparently asleep (you will be amazed the things they apparently sleep through). Ellis finds a box marked "home movies" upstairs, complete with projector, and plays them. The first shows the family from the house, first just sitting around having a decent family time, then abruptly cutting to them being hung, the footage we saw at the start. There are other films, one marked "pool party" and showing a whole family being drowned, one marked "BBQ" and showing a family being burned alive. From each of these, one child was not killed, but had gone missing. The more Ellis watches the films, the more creepy stuff happens in his house, almost all of it involving him walking around the house in the dark, and almost all of it terrifying. I spent a great majority of the film looking at the floor, but I will warn you, as you'll figure out soon enough: when the sound drops out completely, that means something is about to jump out with a loud bang.
That's about it for a long while: Ellis creeps about his house at night. Thing is, it works, because it's relentlessly terrifying. Along the way you might ask yourself: Isn't there still a poisonous snake upstairs? Isn't that a cause for concern? And also: Can't they turn on a fucking light? Me, I hear strange noises in the night, I turn on a light. Of course, the house here makes the hospital from Halloween II look like the surface of the sun, because even during the day, with bright sunlight outside, it's still pitch black inside.
As it continues, we notice that James Ransone brings a lot, and nearly steals the movie, in his small role as a deputy. Ellis continues to be a bastard, putting his own family in danger in his pursuit of fame, to the point where you start to wonder if this guy can be redeemed, at least in movie redemption. All I'll say is that the movie doesn't let him off easy. When the mystery is revealed, it makes sense and is something one feels one should have figured out.
Ultimately, pretty good! It has a ton of family and character and background material, all of which works in service of the story, and Ethan Hawke is able to carry it all, having his character be a very bad dad, while still remaining sympathetic and keeping us afraid for him. And it does in spades what a horror movie should do, which is be really scary. It's too bad from the trailers it's impossible to tell the difference between this and The Possession or any number of recent horror films that all look alike, but this one is a winner. It's well-written, decently directed, well-acted, and just really goddamned scary.
If you like horror.