The Thompsons (2012)

First published by Little White Lies

We should probably start with a spoiler alert. It has been six years since Mitchell Altieri and Phil Flores (known collectively as ‘the Butcher Brothers’) brought us The Hamiltons (2006), their  low-budget mash-up of tropes from the domestic psychothriller, ‘torture porn’ and, er,  one other subgenre, but if you do not know what that ‘other subgenre’ is and do not want the surprise ruined, then best to catch up with the The Hamiltons before reading on or indeed watching this sequel.

That said, the Butchers have written The Thompsons in such a way that no prior knowledge of its central, name-changing clan is required. Opening in medias res with sensitive protagonist Francis Hamilton (Cory Knauf, who also co-wrote) trapped alone in a dark, claustrophobic box, the film (guided by Francis’ dry narration) flashes back to a series of criss-crossing Tarantino-esque episodes that explain who Francis and his siblings are, why they have fled their native America, and how Francis himself has come to be reprising a scene from Buried near the English town of Ludlow.

After an unfortunate chain of events in the Mojave desert exposes their vampiric predations and leaves youngest brother Lenny (Ryan Hartwig) severely injured, the family flees the US for Europe, in search of sanctuary and their late parents’ roots. While the eldest, David (Samuel Child) looks after Lenny in London, and the twins Darlene (Mackenzie Firgens) and Wendell (Joseph McKelheer) stay in Paris for a taste of the nightlife, Francis follows a lead north to Ludlow (!?), where he meets the Stuarts – a similarly cursed/gifted family of bloodthirsty killers whose plans for their long lost American relatives are not as benign as they might first appear. Meanwhile Francis, the only Hamilton who struggles to accept his murderous identity, finds a kindred spirit in Riley Stuart (Elizabeth Henstridge), estranged from her own heritage by a lack of bloodlust (although she is still handy with a knife).

If there is no greater shorthand signifier of the difference between Americans and the English than the condition of their respective teeth, then sure enough, the Hamiltons’ twinned fangs show all the signs of orthodontic perfection, while the Stuarts sport multiple jagged canines in uneven rows. That, however, is not the only Anglo-American contrast drawn between these two clans. For while the Stuarts are a monstrous incarnation of the British landed gentry, obsessed with bloodlines, ‘breeding’ and the hunt, and desperately struggling against their own extinction, the Hamiltons are ‘colonial’ upstarts, rootless, fugitive and constantly searching for (or inventing along the way) their own sense of belonging. And so The Thompsons involves a clash not just of family values, but also of broad trans-Atlantic stereotypes, where the Hamiltons, far from their birthplace and out of their league, discover there is a reason their parents turned their back on the ‘old country’.

The ensuing battle between these two cross-breeding genealogies sees the tables turned on the Hamiltons, who now find themselves in the same position as their prey from the first film: overpowered, hung up and exploited by a clan that kills without compunction. This is an irony to be savoured – but at the same time the Hamiltons’ new status as victims, as well as the odds relentlessly stacking against them, never allow us to feel much unease about what they do to survive as a family. Where its predecessor unpeeled the Hamiltons’ dysfunction and depravity layer by horrifying layer, here their aggressive antics are presented as cosy, lovable quirks – no longer atrocities so much as old, familiar tricks being wheeled out once more as entertainment alone. Indeed, now that Francis has become more comfortable with his cold-blooded legacy, the film too shows a little too much affection for the Hamilton clan. By way of compensation, the storytelling is more ambitious both in its geographical scope and its chronology-leaping structure, and the overall tone comes far closer to comedy – but the final showdown between the Hamiltons and the Stuarts falsely resolves the film’s many tensions in a disappointing free-for-all of snarls, red-flashing eyes and sucker punches, while leaving things wide open for a second sequel.

© Anton Bitel