Following the mysterious death of their parents, a family of orphans move into a house in a small mid-west industrial town. David, the eldest, has taken on the responsibility of care for his siblings: twins, Darlene and Wendall, and Francis, the youngest. Things are not easy when you have lost both parents, and David is struggling to hold the family together. Francis is making a video about them all and harbours his own doubts – will they be able to stay together now that Mum and Dad are gone? Things are made even harder by the fact that Wendall has kidnapped two girls and is holding them captive in the basement of the house, where something hungry and maybe not human is also being kept under padlock and key.
Like Mum and Dad, The Hamiltons starts off resembling a piece of torture porn but emerges as a something else entirely. As in We Are What We Are the degeneracy of the Hamiltons is shown to be an extension of normal family values rather than a deviation from them. ‘The family that slays together stays together’ as it were.
At first it appears that Wendall alone is the cause of all the family’s problems, but the film reveals that there is more to it than that. He is hot-headed, compulsive, a sexual psychopath and David covers up for him, hiding the truth from the world in order to protect his siblings so that they can stay together. But then we begin to realise that David is more involved than we first thought – and shares in his brother’s bloodlust. David seeks out his own victims in the young men he lures home and buries under the house. And we already know that Darlene is one twisted sister and enjoys an incestuous relationship with her twin Wendall to boot.
Only Francis, the youngest, seems, at first, untouched by the family's pathology. He is just trying to figure out where he belongs. Camcording his siblings shows his alienation and his investigation into the nature of his family – and into his own nature. He can’t help but empathise with Sam, the only surviving girl in the cellar. Like Junior in Last House On The Left (1972) and Ruby in The Hills Have Eyes (1976) he represents the possibility of change, of breaking away from the family pathology. As far as Wendall is concerned Francis has yet to ‘pop’ his cherry – “We do what we do to survive”, Wendall tells him. The bleak barren industrial landscape corroborates his sentiment. In some respects The Hamiltons are just another family struggling to survive in modern America, and their attitude that ‘family comes first’, even if it is to the cost of society as a whole, is a peculiarly American one, redolent of the conservative values that persists in some parts. Francis, it seems, is going to be forced to make a choice: stay true to his family or stay true to himself.
At least that is how it appears until he helps Sam to escape and we discover that it was the Hamiltons' father who first taught them how to take what they need from their victims. Francis battles his nature when he sees Sam is bleeding. “We’re born, not made” he tells her. But finally even Francis can’t fight against who, or what, he really is… and the creature in the cellar – Lenny – is another Hamilton...
In many ways The Hamiltons is part of the pastiche movement of the modern horror film. It resembles, in its harsh flatly-lit look, rough-hewn 1970s horrors like Three on A Meathook (1972) and Deranged (1974). After The Hamiltons, the Butcher Brother went on to remake Fred Walton’s 1986 April Fools Day, so they have a foot in the modern horror industry of remakes, pastiches and sequels. But overall this is more intelligent than the average pastiche. For the most part, The Hamiltons critiques the idea of family survival at any cost – presenting it as a pathology – a ‘feeding’ on the rights of others. The film falters, though, in its final reveal. Francis cannot change because of what is revealed as his ‘nature’. He must therefore accept who he is. The problem is that film then conveniently forgets the degeneracy of the family and asks us to sympathise with the Hamiltons who, after all, can’t help their nature and are ‘just trying to fit in.’ (It's interesting that David's homosexuality is coding for his sexual psychopathology, in contrast to Afredo's in We Are What We Are, which is presented as a potential road to liberation from the repression of his degenerate family.)
Shame that The Butcher Brothers ultimately settle for the more conservative message: perhaps they will subvert it in their proposed sequel – The Thompsons. I have yet to see The Violent Kind (2010) but I would say on the back of this horror debut that The Butcher Brothers are among the most interesting horror directors around at the moment.