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The Hamiltons (2006)

Director: The Butcher Brothers
Starring: Samuel Child, Cory Knauf, Joseph McKelheer, Mackenzie Firgens
Rated R Running time: 86 minutes
Released by Lions Gate

The After Dark Films: Eight Film to Die For series has been a decidedly mixed-bag. There are the near-masterpieces (The Abandoned), and then there are those that are so godawful you wonder how they could have possibly gotten a release (Tooth & Nail). One film that seems to have gotten lost in the shuffle is The Hamiltons, a very different take on the "killer family" genre, and one of the best films the annual horror festival has offered to date.

David Hamilton (Samuel Child) takes charge of his very dysfunctional family following the sudden death of their parents. He spends his days, and sometimes his nights, gutting animals for a meat processing plant. At home he does his best to play the father figure to his younger siblings, but is finding his new role difficult. Youngest brother Francis (Cory Knauf) mopes about in typical adolescent fashion, an always recording video camera his constant companion. Francis is quiet and non-communicative at times, but doesn't cause much trouble for his older brother. The twins are another story altogether. Wendell (Joseph McKelheer) and Darlene (Mackenzie Firgens) are the reason the family is forced to move so often. Their pastimes include very disturbing games of "Truth or Dare", constantly tormenting younger brother Francis, and kidnapping women to imprison in the family's basement. The basement is also home to Lenny, an unseen creature who is kept under lock and key. Lenny must be fed, and big brother David uses his butchering skills to oblige the growling, grunting monster. Despite David's best efforts to keep the family under the radar, the crazed twins can't resist the temptation to have some fun with one of Darlene's friends, putting the family in danger once more. Meanwhile, Francis has been taping everything. Though he insists to his siblings that it is all for a school project, he is really trying to document the family's sickness in order to expose their murderous ways.

What makes The Hamiltons different from the bulk of recent horror films was the Butcher Brother's decision to concentrate on character development rather than cheap thrills. If you stripped out all of the bloodletting, you would be left with a serious drama that focuses on a family's attempts to carry on following the loss of their parents and their home. The acting is a tad uneven at times, but the cast is convincing enough to carry the film through the occasional overly melodramatic patch. They effectively portray a group of people who sometimes do monstrous things, rather than the other way around. Child's performance as David is a standout. He is a good actor portraying a bad actor, one who is trying to put a normal face on a very abnormal situation, and has the nervous tics and uneasy manner that suggest that it is an act that can't last long. Joseph McKelheer's Wendell is appropriately sinister. The opposite of David, Wendell makes no attempts to conceal his nature and always seems to be on the verge of doing something very, very bad. McKelheer plays a heavy with ease, and could easily make a career as a film villain if he chose to go in that direction.

Lenny's identity won't be a big secret to anyone who pays even a moderate amount of attention to the early scenes, and the film gets a little too talky for its own good at times. Also, the DV photography doesn't make the The Hamiltons an attractive film to look at. This is a technical issue and not the fault of the makers. The surprising conclusion makes the film work, and is good enough to make me overlook the various flaws in the production.

In the end, The Hamiltons is an intelligent, well-crafted film that slips into the gray area between horror and drama. People seeking a horror film may be put off by the film's slow pace and accent on character, people seeking a family drama may be mortified by the films sicker aspects. That's a pity, because fans of both genres would do well to give The Hamiltons a try.

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