Hangman may be just another down-and-dirty found footage flick at heart, but Adam Mason’s SXSW Midnighter turns the mundane format into a nightmarish invasion of privacy. His killer, whose calling card is that of a noose-tightener, plays the long game here. Action isn’t rushed and pacing is drawn out like taffy, but Mason’s meticulous dissection of a first-hand home invasion works where other equal efforts become dull and gimmicky. Families should feel safe together, but Hangman warps feelings of barricaded tranquility into voyeuristic naughtiness caught on the camera of a reckless stalker. He sees you when your sleeping, he knows when you’re awake, yet the “Hangman” is no Santa Claus – unless you consider backwash in your OJ a present.
Told through the eyes of a mask-wearing figure known as “Hangman” (Eric Michael Cole), we watch helplessly as the crazed psycho torments an unsuspecting family. Aaron (Jeremy Sisto) treats his clan to an English getaway, but during their two-week vacation, “Hangman” breaks into their home and bugs the place with security cameras. When they return, they have no idea that “Hangman” is watching their every move – and living in their attic.
From small pranks to terrifying bouts of looming, “Hangman” comes out to play each and every night. Beth (Kate Ashfield) starts to become paranoid, and the children (played by Ryan Simpkins and Ty Simpkins) have their own interactions with the faceless maniac, but Aaron tries to remain calm and reasonable. Because that always works…
Don’t be immediately turned off by a bare-bones VHS aesthetic. This plays into the authenticity of “Hangman’s” thoughtlessness, and an actual respect of the found footage genre (at times). Nothing is done to beautify cinematography or remove audiences from the madness. We’re granted a front-row seat to a serial killer’s villainous game, but his muddied motivations and general non-description work well with such outdated technology. Some filmmakers try to cheat, achieving scenic shots that make no contextual sense in moments of aggression, and Adam Mason learns from such ship-jumping. If you commit to found footage, commit 100%.
That said, there are some pacing issues with Hangman. In remaining true to his murderer’s slow-burning plan, scenes can feel repetitive. Whether it be Beth waking up to an opened bottle of juice from the fridge, or Max (Ty Simpkins) complaining of another bad dream, “Hangman’s” evil ways become predictably cyclical. Most daytime drama comes from his long-distance stalking, or monitored surveillance footage (cameras that are never found?), which means night is when the true mischief goes down. This means there are some waiting periods, but again, Mason commits to his killer, and lets tension play out genuinely. Slowly, sometimes tediously, but genuinely.
The real intrigue kicks in when we get small, raw doses of who “Hangman” really is. While sitting alone in Aaron’s attic, his obsession with Beth alludes to possible mommy issues, and that of a loveless upbringing. This builds a backstory that we never get a chance to see, as the very first shot of Hangman jumps right into breaking-and-entering. Assumptions that the killer may be simple-minded are proven correct when he wails like an infantile baby upon the realization that Beth will never love him (because he watched her bone Aaron), and we’re finally able to piece together something of a character profile for a villain we’ve already spent some fifty-odd minutes with.
Innovation may not be a strong factor here, but Hangman‘s successes can be attributed to respect. Respect for a genre that typically gets none. It’s simple, yet natural. Sluggish, yet brooding. Mason understands how to make a murderer, and even though the building blocks aren’t shown, we get a thrilling glance into despicable, twisted human obsessions. There’s no reinvention of horror here, just a perfectly apt tale of homebound hellishness worth watching with the lights on.
If you’re a lover of found footage subgenre works, Hangman deserves to be on your watch list (can’t say the same for POV haters, though). Mason is able to break down all the seediness and sluggishness of a true domestic takeover with a haunting, look-over-your-shoulder brand of tension – but it’s still a bit pedestrian, and admittedly not for everyone. Luckily, I’ve seen a billion different found footage hopefuls, and in comparison, Hangman elevates itself where others faceplant hard. Grainy camera lensing and all.
Hangman doesn't rewrite found footage history, but it plays to enough of the genre's strengths in this creepy little home invasion tale.