Christmas is just around the corner, and many a family out there will soon be busting out the camcorder to document their happiness at this special time of year. Years down the line, these captured memories of smiling faces and playful delights will be replayed for nostalgia, mirth and (perhaps) ridicule.
But what if that which a family captures in their well-intentioned lens-wielding endeavours is not happiness, but disintegration and horror?
Welcome to Terror Tots – and writer/director Christopher Denham’s Home Movie.
Adrian Pasdar, of TV’s Heroes fame, leads the cast as Lutheran pastor and married father of two, David Poe. His wife Clare (Cady McClain) is a psychologist, and their two kids Jack and Emily are…well…a pair of little weirdos.
This is a found-footage film, but of a slightly different ilk than many would be accustomed to. Bouncing between scenes and setups via the use of a DVD-menu style display, Home Movie follows the Poe family’s exploits across various important times of the year – Thanksgiving, Easter, Halloween etc. – as David enthusiastically seeks to document the childhood of his brood.
Early on, though, it’s evident that something just isn’t particularly right about the Poe children. The opening shot depicts a rotting animal carcass being filmed, before showing it being dragged along in a child’s red, wooden trailer. Son Jack decides to make a sandwich out the family’s pair of pet goldfish, and throws rocks at his father instead of the ball during a game of catch. Orchestrated moments of simultaneous disobedience see the children begin to shatter the apparent happy normality of their homestead.
Most of Jack and Emily’s acting out is dismissed as simple misbehaviour by their parents, especially doting father David, but before long their activities reach sinister levels that can no longer be ignored.
Fighting against their own emotions in the face of the evidence right in front of them, David and Clare enter a downward spiral. Clare attempts to psychoanalyse the children, but in doing so also skirts around the obvious conclusions that she should be drawing, whilst David succumbs to alcohol-fuelled depression and rage – pushed, climactically, into attempting a frenzied, drunken exorcism on the screaming youngsters.
Funnily enough… it seems to do the trick! But as we step forward to the next holiday and the Poe children are left to their own devices with a neighbourhood friend, Home Movie pulls off a revelatory sequence that brings everything to a head in shockingly effective style. It’s understated – mere glimpses of what they’re up to – but sporting a blast of wonderfully sharp editing and sound design that make for a truly “holy shit!” moment.
The activities of the children remain rather understated throughout the film, yet this actually works well in crafting the chills. The focus here is more on the emotional effect on the parents – especially the more sympathetic David. Being the one constantly carrying the camera around, it’s his enthusiasm for family life that drives the film. A product of an abusive home, David is doing all that he can to ensure that his children receive as superior an upbringing as he can deliver, only to have despair foisted upon him at every turn by their wilfully destructive behaviour. Pasdar does very well in bringing to life his internal conflict and desperation.
Whilst it works for the main body of the narrative, this low key approach actually lessens the impact of the finale, which could have done with going much further than it does. It still works, but only just. The most affecting element of Home Movie is not the brutality perpetrated by the children, but the very real exploration of their parents’ dismissal and disbelief that their seemingly normal offspring could actually be serial killers in the making. Love trumps reason until it’s simply too late.
After seeing this, you might be wanting to go back through your own old home movies… if only to see whether your enthusiasm in those moments had blinded you to the cold stares of your own little ones. Is there something about your own tots that you simply aren’t admitting to yourself?
Now that is scary.
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