An old college buddy I’ve recently re-connected with through the auspices of facebook (he now lives in Spain, a fact of which I’m officially envious) recently turned me onto this 2006 indie horror feature from the pseudonymous writer-director team of “The Butcher Brothers” (in reality Michell Altieri and Phil Flores, who would go on to helm the dismal April Fool’s Day remake) in a rather roundabout fashion — he’d seen a chunk of it on TV and didn’t know the name of it, gave me a rundown of the premise, and asked me if it rang a bell with me. I had to admit that it didn’t and thanks, I’m guessing, to the modern miracle of Google he was able to figure out what it was and let me know. So he sort of answered his own question, I was just a (useless, as it turns out) intermediary.
In any case, I was sufficiently intrigued by the brief run-down he was able to give me about it to add it to the ol’ Netflix queue and give it a go. I don’t know whether my friend has been able to catch The Hamiltons in its entirety yet, but he seemed drawn enough into its quietly menacing vibe that I hope for his sake he’ll be able to see the whole thing one of these days if he hasn’t yet.
Not that it’s some unrecognized masterpiece or anything. In truth, it’s got some pretty serious flaws that almost wrecked the whole thing for me (and for some viewers they may indeed prove to be insurmountable), but it’s got a mood and atmosphere all its own and, though it drags (and drags, and drags, and drags) in spots, the payoff at the end is solid enough to make sitting through the film in its well entirety worth it.
It’s something of a tricky movie to review because the less you know about it, the better, so while there are, in fact, a couple of big-time “spoilers” in the short synopsis I’ll provide, I’ve left the biggest one out entirely so as not to spoil the aforementioned strongly surprising, and entirely logical, ending.
The titular Hamiltons are a family of four who have lost their mom and dad under circumstances that are never explained, and we learn that since their passing they have moved from town to town with no small degree of frequency. The de facto head of the family is older brother David (Samuel Child), who’s struggling to come to terms with his homosexuality while trying to keep a leash on the rest of the brood, particularly twin siblings Wendell(Joseph McKelheer), who we learn early on just got out of jail, and Darlene (Mackenzie Firgis), a goth-chick femme fatale. When these two get together, they have a way of causing a lot of trouble, to put it mildly.
Rounding out the family unit is 15-year-old Francis (Cory Knauf), an alienated teenager who’s like a horror-movie version of the boyfriend in American Beauty in that he doesn’t really have any roots in his community, doesn’t really have any friends, doesn’t get along with the rest of his family, and carries a hand-held high-def video camera with him everywhere (there’s plenty of POV-style handheld shots in this flick, and the entire movie was shot on HD video, but it’s not strictly a “hand-held/YouTube horror” in that the main action is shot in a typical third-party perspective, with Francis’ video camera shots just providing the occasional break from the norm). Francis is our narrative point of entry into the family and serves as, for all intents and purposes, the film’s central character, but he’s a tough nut to crack in that Knauf’s performance (the only one in the film that could probably honestly be called “good” by generally accepted standards) is withdrawn and isolated not only from the fictitious world around him, but from the audience itself. You don’t empathize with him so much as wonder what the fuck is up with the guy, which works when you’re trying to convey a sense of alienation and isolation, but a more professional actor would have found some way to allow the audience “in,” so to speak — even just ever-so-slightly.
It doesn’t take long to learn that the reason Francis is so troubled by the rest of his family is that they have a habit of picking up stray late-teens/early-20s youths and keeping them prisoner in the cellar for reasons not made clear until about halfway through the film, when it’s revealed that the Hamiltons are a clan of vampires who are bleeding their victims out over time so as to maximize their — uhhhmmm — nutritional value. Or something.
The twins, though, as I mentioned a moment ago, have a habit of getting out of hand, and aren’t above luring in a “snack” for the two of them to gorge on privately (by the time this particular aspect of their relationship is revealed it’s no big surprise because we’ve already learned that they’re not above engaging in some incestuous foreplay, if not out-and-out incestuous intercourse — a revelation which oughtta be a biggie but feels pretty natural given the way the two of them behave from the outset of the movie).
As the story progresses, Francis’ dilemma moves from the realm of the abstract to the concrete as he attempts to forge a friendship (or something) with one of their caged-up female victims and struggles with whether or not to rat out the rest of his family to their clueless social worker. It makes for a pretty interesting situation rife with tension, but therein lies the problem.
Dramatic tension, you see, is not exactly the Butcher Brothers’ strong suit. The whole movie is presented in a low-key, almost monotonous tone, and everything, even the occasional flash of humor, is presented in such a straightforward and deadpan manner that it almost feels like all they’re doing with their HD camcorder is pointing and shooting. The uniformly amateurish quality of the acting (apart from Knauf’s believable, but in no way involving, turn as Francis) doesn’t help matters much, either.
All that being said, amateurism has never been a strike against a flick here at TFG, and the whole student-movie feel does create a strangely lulling vibe that draws you in if it doesn’t turn you off within the first few minutes. Simply put, The Hamiltons ends up with a pace and mood all its own that demands you meet it on its terms because the filmmakers don’t know how to do anything else.
The script is talky and short on the blood and gore (don’t let that grisly poster art fool you), but what carnage there is does, in fact, work, not only because it’s effectively done for such a low-budget effort, but because it breaks the almost droning type of rhythm the movie has established and really comes as a shock to the system. Imagine long stretches of style-free dialogue scenes all shot in the same sterile suburban house punctuated by a bloodbath three or four times before returning to bland nonchalance and you’ll get the idea.
Incongruity both of subject matter and settings (the house and the cellar look like they’re in entirely different parts of the country, even though the narrative establishes that one is, as you’d expect, right on top of the other) is one of the strengths of The Hamiltons, and whether or not this juxtaposition is achieved by intent, by accident, or just by low-budget necessity (I’m betting on the latter) really doesn’t matter, the fact is that is just plain works.
As I said, though, this movie is a tough, slow slog if you don’t find yourself drawn in by its singularly droll style and can’t get past the student-film feel of the semi-pro acting (the only face you might recognize is Brittany Daniel in a cameo as one of the victims) combined with the always-cheap look (in my view, at least) of HD video. Even then, though, you might find it worth your while to stick it out for that slam-dunk of an ending I mentioned a few paragraphs back. Altieri and Flores really pull out the stops with that one, and manage to wrap things up in a way that makes both perfect sense, yet also surprises the hell out of you at the same time. The one burning unanswered question that nags in the viewer’s mind throughout the film — one which I won’t even spell out for fear of dimming the surprise conclusion — is answered in the only way that makes any kind of sense once you think about it, but trust me when I say you still won’t see it coming.
The Hamiltons was part of the After Dark Horror Fest of 2006, which sports the tag line “8 Films To Die For,” and frankly I’m glad I didn’t know that going in because all the other After Dark flicks I’ve seen, both from that year and all years subsequent, have pretty much sucked and I probably would have passed on it. Like the other movies in the series it’s been picked up for DVD distribution by Lionsgate, and the disc contains a pretty nice selection of extras that includes a smattering of deleted scenes (most of which were excised because they would have given away the ending early), some typically inane bloopers, a really solidd commentary track from The Butcher Brothers and Cory Knauf that really gets into the guts of the movie’s production, and a bunch of trailers for other After Dark films. The picture is presented in a nice-looking anamorphic widescreen transfer and the audio can be checked out in either a very solid 5.1 surround mix or standard two-channel stereo. So it’s a pretty solid presentation for a low-budget indie that’s only going to appeal to a pretty small audience.
If you’re willing to make allowances for The Hamiltons being — well, what it is — namely an ultra-cheap, obviously crude first effort from a couple of filmmakers who are learning on the job filled with a cast of actors doing much the same — and you can appreciate the work of people whose heart is obviously in the right place but whose ambition exceeds their technical ability, then you’re in for a pretty enjoyable ride. And even if you can’t forgive its shortcomings, you’ll still probably find the ending ultimately both startling and extremely satisfying, since it’s good enough in and of itself to salvage the rest of the flick even if you’ve found it to be excruciatingly dull.
For my part I found it more weirdly listless and sterile than actually boring, and its (probably unintentional, but so what?) mellow atmosphere really drew me in after awhile —then I got walloped good and solid a couple times by the visceral-but-quick gore scenes and really pleasantly thrown for a loop by the last few minutes. The Hamiltons has a weird but ultimately satisfying rhythmic structure that goes mmmmmmmmm—–bump! —–mmmmmmmmmm—-bump!—–mmmmmmmmm—-bump!—-mmmmmmm—-holy shit!
It’s not a terrific viewing experience by any means, but it is a unique one. If you’re the sort of person who likes buying a candy bar or sandwich or something for $2.50, giving the cashier a 20, waiting for a damn long time while they drop the bill in the safe and count the change out slowly, then finding one of the fives they gave you back is actually two fresh, crisp bills stuck together, so they ended up giving you back more than you actually paid, I think you’ll dig it.