Review of “Family Secret”

 

“Family Secret” is the 2011 offering from filmmaker Geno McGahee, Xposse Productions, and Webhead Entertainment. The film is about a recently deceased grandmother who apparently comes back from the grave and starts killing off her family members. Her grandson, Geno, is thrust into the center of it all as he tries to uncover the true reason for the killings.

Story-wise, the film is a slasher and giallo combination. I know that slashers and giallos are closely related, but they do have basic differences. In a slasher film, you know who the killer is and the reason for the killing spree (the backstory) is established near the beginning of the film. Most of it is about revealing the survivor and his/her connection to the killer. In a giallo, you don’t know who the killer is and several suspects are introduced throughout the film. The majority of it is about revealing the identity of the killer and his/her backstory.

The reason I consider “Family Secret” to be a slasher/giallo combo is that it weaves in and out of both sub-genres, successfully. You get the slasher killings but you also have the mysterious elements of a giallo. If you need a specific frame of reference, think of the film as equal parts John Carpenter, Dario Argento, Lamberto Bava, and Roman Polanski. As always, McGahee tells an in-depth story and, in that sense, “Family Secret” works very well.

However, my main criticism is that there seemed to be an emotional disconnect throughout the entire film. I feel that this created an imbalance and it took away from the overall work. I realize that everyone worked hard on the production and I am not faulting any specific actor or crew member.  Rather, there are three “global” reasons for the disconnect. Mind you, I didn’t want the emotional drama of a soap opera. I only wanted what was necessary to flesh-out the characters and make them real.

First, I thought there were too many “main” characters. I recognize that McGahee was trying to establish possible suspects for the killer and he was also exploring the dysfunctional relationships in that family, but some of the characters blended together and it became a little confusing. Most of the characters had a sketchy moral background and it got to the point where everyone was a possible suspect. I think that the film would have worked better (especially in the first half) if only a few characters were defined and were made unique, in regard to one another. Those family relationships could have been explored more effectively and I feel it would have created a stronger emotional component to the film (a lot of potential there).

For example, the character of Geno was one of the more distinct and memorable characters because he was clearly established as the peacekeeper, the rational one, and the problem-solver of the family. Once he was defined, some ambiguity was introduced and the character became a plausible suspect for the killings. I wanted to see more of that type of process, albeit with less characters.

Second,  I feel that the set design could have been used more for defining and clarifying characters. I realize that there are budget and time constraints, but I thought that there were a lot of missed opportunities for sculpting characters and creating atmosphere for the overall film. I believe that this also would have fostered more emotional connectivity because everyone may have been more “in-character” if the surrounding environment encouraged that.

One standout example of this was Geno’s work cubicle. Yes, Geno was a well-written and defined character but I also felt that he wasn’t fleshed out and made real (with emotion and depth). His cubicle was a prime opportunity for making him real and I point this out because his cubicle was bare/gray and his computer screen was always blank. Some clippings from Geno’s past work – maybe about the child molester investigation – could be hanging up. Maybe there could be some past-due utility bills laying on his desk, implying that he sacrifices his personal needs for his family and work. Maybe he could have a weird message in his email about conspiracies, etc. Maybe some generic, safe pictures of trees and landscapes could show that he is a status-quo guy, which would set up the fact that he needs to take charge, put his foot down, step out of his comfort zone, and “rock the family boat” so to speak. As you can see, there were many set-design possibilities, for that scene and others.

In all fairness, there were a few instances where small aspects of set design (intentional or not) made a huge impact. In one scene, early-on in the film, two family members are talking in front of a mantle, in one of the homes. On the mantle, behind one character, there is a picture of an older man and it looks like the man is eerily looking over one character’s shoulder. The implication being: a family elder is keeping an eye on things and that character, whom he is watching, is a servant to the watchful eye. Another scene is when Geno and another character go to the grandfather’s house. On the kitchen wall there is something that looks like an eye chart (you know, with the letters gradually getting smaller). Again, it was a small thing but it added a little mystery to the grandfather character and also added some “cryptic” atmosphere to the overall film.

Third, I felt that the characters all delivered very interesting dialogue, but that dialogue wasn’t delivered emotionally. Most of the characters’ acting/presence did not fit the dialogue or the overall scene and this is one of the main reasons for the emotional disconnect of the film. Overall, I felt there was too much dialogue and it would have been better if less was said and more was expressed, through acting and presence. Throughout the film, actors would describe an emotion by saying something like, “hey, you can’t talk to me like that. I’m part of this family”  but they wouldn’t convey that emotion. Instead of saying “hey, you can’t talk to me like that”, I think it would have been better – for the scene and the overall film – if that line was dropped and the “hey…” anger/defensiveness was expressed in the “I’m…” line. In other words, all of the “hey…” feeling would be expressed through tone of voice, body language, and facial expression while the actor said the line “I’m part of this family”.

Before I go on, I do want to point out one scene that worked extremely well and stuck in my mind. This scene contained the three things that I wanted more of, in the film. In the scene, Geno’s female co-worker is hitting on him and basically asking him to cheat on his wife. The boss hears this and fires the girl. She runs out to the parking lot and the sex offender (that Geno investigated in the past) starts harassing her. Geno runs up and defends her, implying-but-not-saying that he won’t cheat on his wife but he does care about the girl as a human being. He wishes her well and offers to help her if she needs anything. The scene closes with her embracing him and the camera focuses on her face, over Geno’s shoulder. In that strange moment, Geno finds a true “family” relationship that he never found in his real family. I might be reading into it, but this scene is a great example of what McGahee, the crew, and the actors can do. It was one of the high points of the film and it said a lot without actually saying it in dialogue. Great scene.

Despite those three issues, I felt the movie really “kicked-into-gear” in the second half. I enjoyed the design/look of the old-lady killer and McGahee’s musical score employed an effective killer motif – very much in the style of John Carpenter. In fact, all of the musical cues were spot-on and supported the scenes – McGahee is quite good at pairing music with film.

The special effects were another strong point and all looked pretty good. Some on-camera effects, some off-camera, and some quick cut-shots were used, but the blood and gore looked very real. The “killer” aspect of the film really came together in the bowling alley scene, where it was pure slasher. This harkened back to 1980s “party” slashers where the killer was targeting groups of victims in an enclosed area, rather than picking them off one by one in various locations (Halloween II, Nightmare on Elm St. 2, Popcorn, My Bloody Valentine, etc). That part was a lot of fun.

Aside from the sets, the external locations (got to see some of the Massachusetts area) and the outside/night shots were great. I enjoyed the view of the church, which was similar to the imposing image of the funeral home in the Phantasm films. Director of Photography John Golden framed all the shots very well, the lighting was good, and the multiple camera angles really worked during character interaction. Also, kudos to skillful editing by Forris Day Jr. (who also played Geno). Because of their attention to detail, I thought that this was one of McGahee’s best filmed and edited works.

Anyway, “Family Secret” has a great story and solid production, but I don’t feel that it totally reached its full potential. McGahee and the Xposse crew have progressed and the production aspects of their films have gotten better, but the characters, set design, and dialogue need to be more in-balance with those stronger elements. I did enjoy watching “Family Secret” and I am looking forward to watching it again for the DVD commentary and special features. It’s definitely worth watching and I think fans of slashers, giallos, and conspiracy films will appreciate it. For more information on the film, visit http://www.scaredstiffreviews.com and http://www.webheadentertainment.com.

Review and Quick Byte by Peter Syslo

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: