A riff on the found footage format, and quite creepy at times, this one would have benefited from some tighter editing—especially in the first 20 minutes or so. Still, a number of interesting themes are explored, and some of them are dark indeed.
The pic opens with Super 8 footage of a brutal multiple homicide, in which a father, mother, and two kids are strung up hangman style on a big tree, mercifully (for the audience) with bags over their heads, and are hung to their deaths. As it happens, this homicide is more than a whodunit. A bothersome detail is that the third child Stephanie is not an obvious victim, and is nowhere to be found.
Hoping to solve this mystery, and revitalize his career as a onetime hit writer of true crime books, Ellison Oswalt (Ethan Hawke) moves his family to the town of the murder, and as if that weren’t enough, into the very house where the murder victims lived. Well, it must have been a steal…
As Ellison goes up into the attic, he notices a box filled with Super 8 films, and a suitable projector. Each film canister includes a helpful label, with such titles as “Hanging Out,” “Sleepy Time,” “BBQ,” and “Pool Party.” Assuming they were left there by the unfortunate former dwellers of the house, and thinking that this collection could give him some insight on the crime, he screens them later that same night.
“Hanging Out” is, of course, the snuff film from the beginning of the picture, and the rest of the collection depicts equally awful murders of what would seem to be entire families. Upon more careful viewing, Ellison notices a symbol in all of the films. With the help of occult researcher Professor Jonas (an uncredited Vincent D’Onofrio), the symbol is identified with an ancient demon called Bughuul, who supposedly traps the souls of children, while killing their families.
More than that, Bughuul has the ability to enter the mortal world via portrayals of his image, and Ellison has seen him in some of the films. Worse, he is apparently able to possess the souls of vulnerable individuals who view his image.
With this sort of evil vibe floating around the house, a number of strange things start to happen, and even if Ellison is close to figuring out how all the snuff film homicides are related, he might not be able to save his family or himself.
***SPOILERS AND OTHER COMMENTS***
While not stated directly, it is certainly implied that basing one’s fortune on the tragedies of others—lurid murders, no less—might just tip those Karma scales in the wrong direction.
Unlike Jack Torrance in The Shining (1980), our Ellison Oswalt is already off the rails before he enters the cursed house. Who in his right mind would bring his family (nurturing some, uh, pre-existing conditions) into a crime scene residence?
Only too late does he realize the great danger in which he has placed his family. And this, despite his figuring out the connection of all the murders, and how each victim lived in the house of a former related crime.
When the perps of each homicide are finally revealed, this ties up all the loose ends, even if it also depicts the darkest theme of all.