There's a nasty edge to this horror film that makes it much creepier than most, which gives Hawke the chance to give an unnervingly haunted performance. As the script reveals its hideous secrets, the filmmakers really make our skin crawl. Although it's not easy to figure out what the point is, since the whole film seems to be merely an exercise in scaring the audience.
It's all based in true crime, as author Ellison (Hawke) drags his wife Tracy (Rylance) and kids to a new town so he can investigate another unsolved murder. What he hasn't told Tracy is that they're living in the crime scene, an unusually dark house that has a box of home movies in the attic that reveal a much more gruesome horror than Ellison was expecting. The killings at hand turn out to be part of a string of hideous murders that seem to have a supernatural twist.
Indeed, this film takes a very bleak trip into the darkest recesses of the imagination: the deaths on these home movies are so hideous that we can barely watch them. But then, this also means that the film is more unnerving than nine out of 10 horror movies. And Hawke is a solid central character we can identify with, as he's unable to stop digging into the story, looking further into these murders and watching every last home movie even though he knows he should really stop. He gives Ellison an earthy honesty that carries us along with him, even when some standard movie characters pop up, including an angry sheriff (Thompson), his dopey deputy (Ransone) and an expert professor (D'Onofrio).
Director-cowriter Derrickson (The Exorcism of Emily Rose) builds a moody sense of dread as the story progresses, jolting us out of our seats with the usual movie trickery, including jittery imagery and loud noises. But he also gets under our skin with the story itself, which is so grim that it sends chills down our spine to realise that someone could even think of these awful things, let alone film them.