The Hamiltons Review
Francis Hamilton (Knauf), a shy teenager, has problems. He’s unhappy and dissatisfied, his parents are dead, his eldest brother is a prissy closet gay who has a habit of bringing home transients, his middle brother has a violence problem and a much too close relationship with his twin sister, and he has the most obnoxious social worker in the whole of the state. And to put the tin lid on things, there are two women tied up in the cellar. It’s Francis’ attempts to sort out his own happiness and where his life is going that are the focus of The Hamiltons, a witty, low-budget horror film which deserves praise for its ambitions even though they are not always realised.
The opening scene, while well achieved, is somewhat misleading in terms of the tone it leads one to expect. A sobbing young girl is locked in a cellar and discovers the body of a young man wrapped in plastic. Screaming, she hears someone at the door and is summarily dispatched. There’s a nicely claustrophobic feel to this first sequence but it feels like a Hostel knock-off, albeit less sadistic. What follows is very different and the credit sequence is filmed through a 4:3 DV lens which, we discover, belongs to Francis who has the habit of filming his everyday life and playing it back to try and figure out where he belongs. There’s a narration behind the credits which establishes Francis as a very mixed-up young man who was very close to his mother and is finding it tough without them, trying to adapt to his eldest brother David (Child) taking on a parental role. His opening question is “What does it mean to happy? To be content in the world around you?” and the film goes on to answer his question, although not in the way the audience expects.
This subversion of expectations is by far the best thing about The Hamiltons. If the opening has a touch of the torture-porn genre, the next half hour is like a cross between The Squid and the Whale and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. We realise that Francis’s brothers and his sister are involved in serial abductions but the question of what they do with the bodies is left open. It looks, particularly in a witty dinner scene with the fatly genial social worker (Liner), as if cannibalism might be the way it’s going and when we see David and middle brother Wendell (McKelheer) handle the abductees like they’re cattle waiting to be slaughtered, it appears that our suspicions are about to be confirmed. But the film takes a sharp left turn when the sister, Darlene (Firgens), invites her friend Kitty to stay. There follows a fantastic set-piece in which Darlene and Wendell show their true colours in a fashion so reckless that it drives David – who has to clean up after his family’s predilections – to distraction. There are clues leading to this reveal and some viewers might be quicker than me, but I was delighted to be surprised at a time when the horror genre is getting less and less surprising.
There’s a nice 1970s feeling to The Hamiltons and this partly comes from the extreme low-budget nature of the film. It’s grainy and a bit grubby at times, in the best Texas Chainsaw tradition and the tone is not a long way from the works of George Romero during the period. The suburban atmosphere and the bland interiors are very reminiscent of Martin - and Francis Hamilton looks quite a bit like John Amplas, which in the circumstances seems very appropriate. The disgust at what his family do and what he finds he has to do is highly reminiscent of Romero’s film, although The Hamiltons is neither as clever nor as well directed. But it’s still nice to see a new take on an old genre and the ultimate revelation that the family’s problem is not cannibalism but vampirism works very well – the shock-cut to Kitty in the bath, drained of blood, is beautifully done. Moments such as David’s disgust at his cooking, the social worker eating while everyone else leaves their plates clean and Wendell urging Francis to “pop his cherry” are cleverly worked into the story and only become apparent in retrospect.
The film was made fast and cheap on Digital Video – the schedule was fourteen days - but sometimes belies its origins. There are some beautiful vistas of Petaluma in California, although the lingering on them does suggest an attempt to pad the film out to ninety minutes. On the debit side, Francis’ constant introspection and filming of everything is a neat touch at the start but it does begin to pall and his fixation on one of the victims is more maudlin than touching. To be fair, the other apparently inconsequential scenes set in the home do justify themselves in retrospect. Some of the acting is also a little amateurish – Mackenzie Firgens’ goth girl is more than a little overdone and McKelheer has clearly seen A Streetcar Named Desire a few too many times since his moody tough guy with manic interludes comes across as a third-rate Brando imitation. A more serious problem is that the film is never really frightening. The big scene between the twins and Kitty is cleverly done but works more as black comedy than the intense horror it should be. The filmmakers, despite their over the top nom-de-plume, deserve credit for their restraint – it’s not an overly gory film – but they don’t make the most of their big splatter scenes either. As for the final twist involving the identity of Lenny, who lives in the basement… Well, all I can say is that if you haven’t guessed who he is within twenty minutes then you haven’t been paying attention.
But there’s such a strong element of dark humour running through the film and it’s such a neat spin on the American family that I don’t find it hard to forgive most of the flaws. The Butcher Brothers – Mitchell Altieri and Phil Flores – are clearly talents to watch, although next time they might want to skip the meandering teen introspection and focus more on ratcheting up the tension.
Lions Gate’s R2 DVD of The Hamiltons is a pretty good release. There are, inevitably, some problems with the visual aspect but as far as I can see, these are inherent in the filming. It’s a little soft throughout and very grainy at times but there’s nothing too objectionable. Colours, when they really matter, are vivid and the reds are quite as startling as they should be. The Dolby Digital 5.1 track is a little constrained but then this isn’t the sort of film which offers a full surround sound experience.
The extras are confined to some trailers for other Lions Gate films - Fragile, Edison, See No Evil, Employee of the Month - a few deleted scenes and a commentary. The deleted scenes are all extraneous, explaining plot points which we’ve already understood such as how Wendell picked up the girls at the beginning. The commentary, featuring the directors and Cory Knauf, is brisk and entertaining, and brims over with enthusiasm as you’d expect from debuting filmmakers. It tends to be a bit effusive at times but the Butcher Brothers do a good job of explaining a few of the more mystifying elements of the narrative.
Optional English subtitles are provided for the film but not for the extra features.
I think I liked The Hamiltons rather more than many other people did and I would warn potential viewers that some found it slow, predictable and boring.