How often does a suspense-horror trope have to be reused before individual films cohere into a sub-genre rather than suffer dismissal as derivative of some originator? Slasher movies weren’t really a thing until Halloween borrowed from Black Christmas. Mummy movies only came to be recognised when Universal recycled elements from The Mummy into the more formulaic bandaged bruiser picturesof the 1930s. Hangman is a found footage film – at some point between the release of The Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity, that became a sub-genre so that new entries aren’t automatically stamped as ripoffs of either of these tentpoles (though quite a few are).
The well-remembered 1973 TV movie Bad Ronald featured a creepy kid who lives in the hidden spaces of a family home, peeping on the regular inhabitants, half-convincing them the place is haunted, then emerging as a psycho threat … kicking off a slow-burning sub-genre that probably got named with the 1989 Gary Busey film Hider in the House. At a trickle came The House That Mary Built, Through the Eyes of a Killer (from Christopher Fowler’s story ‘The Master Builder’,which was – ahem – homaged by an episode of Whitechapel), The Attic aka Crawlspace, The Resident (another lift from the Fowler story) and a few others … including Two recent films vary the formula by posing as ghost stories for a while. It’d a spoiler to tag them hider in the house films, but one of these is the first film to play with the expectations of the form, by revealing that the hider and the mystery killer are different people at cross-purposes and having the hider save the girl in the end.
Hangman, the latest from director Adam Mason and his usual co-writer Simon Boyes, is a found footage hider in the house film, and omits the pathetic element that runs from Bad Ronald and Housebound (which were about left-behinds staying in their own houses after new folks move in) to make its stocking-masked invader, Jimmy aka Hangman (Eric Michael Cole), a slow-burning serial killer of families who gets off on surveillance (like the villain of another FrightFest choice this year, Slumlord) as much as on acts of violence. Mason began with a run of ultra-cheap British films (The 13th Sign, Dust, Prey) before upping the nastiness factor with the effective but unlikeable captive slave woman feature Broken and similar items (Pig, The Devil’s Chair) but relocated to the US with Blood River.
Though this carries over elements – especially the humiliation of the leading lady – from his earlier films, Hangman is a less confrontationally trashy piece, concentrating on subtle chills (the way Hangman taking a drink from a juice bottle he leaves out in the kitchen sets off tension in the family, the youngest child confiding about his not-imaginary friend Jimmy) rather than outright nastiness until the climax. Though modestly-budgeted, it runs to solid actors outside Mason’s usual talent pool – Jeremy Sisto (Six Feet Under) and Kate Ashfield (Shaun of the Dead) are Aaron and Beth Miller, the target parents, with siblings Ryan Simpkins (Revolutionary Road, Surveillance) and Ty Simpkins (Jurassic World, Iron Man 3) as the kids, who experience embarrassment and terror in equal measures as their bedrooms are invaded. Like Broken, it’s still just a conte cruel – a villain makes innocents suffer for no apparent reason – but it’s a more effective and unsettling one than earlier Masonic ventures.