Ethan Hawke, a much loved actor who’s been in some wonderful films (Gattaca, Hamlet and the Before Sunset series) finds himself in a cheap and cheerless horror film with a couple of clever ideas and a few scary moments, but is ultimately hampered by the stilted writing and dreary directing of Scott Derrickson (The Exorcism of Emily Rose).
Hawke plays Ellison Oswalt, a true crime writer who’s moved – along with his family – into the house where a bizarre quadruple murder and child kidnapping happened three years earlier. Determined to write another best-seller and crack the case that left local police baffled, Ellison unpacks and gets to it whilst his wife Tracy (Juliet Rylance) and two young children, Trevor (Michael Hall D’Addario) and Ashley (Clare Foley) start settling. Ellison finds a box of 8mm home movies in the attic – all disturbing footage of similar murders, and each case involving a missing child. And because local Sherriff (Fred Dalton Thompson) has made it clear that the police don’t like his books, Ellison decides to go it alone rather than share the creepy films. Of course he works at night and the house starts to creak and groan mysteriously, perhaps evidence of a supernatural force in the building. But as he goes through the found footage in detail – digitising, copying, and printing clues – we start to realise that the evil is in the images themselves. Can Ellison nail the mystery before it nails him?
Shot quickly – and at times carelessly – in one location (to no doubt keep the costs down), there’s no sense of an ordinary world in which the horrors of this story can play out to frightening psychological effect. Hawke is often on his own, grimacing at overly stylised images, drinking heavily and muttering the obvious to himself and the audience. His interactions with wife Tracey are ridiculously unreal (thanks also to a dreadful performance from Rylance), and the other characters he deals with – the naïve and helpful lawman and the academic expert on ancient rituals – are straight from the introductory handbook of horror writing. The real opportunity here – to make something fascinating and scary from the idea that images can have a life of their own – is wasted in the clumsy rush to frighten with surprise.
If you’re an Ethan Hawke fan, you’d be best to wait a week or two when Before Midnight hits the screens.