Family Reunion (1989)

AKA: Terror in Sutterville,
AKA: Picknick in Ghost City

FamilyReunion1

It’s Christmas Eve and the Andrews family is going on a little road trip. Their patriarch, Tom, is a little uneasy due to a recurring nightmare he keeps having every year around this time  about some sort of cult that gets killed. But he’s willing to tough out his unease for the sake of his family: his wife, their two children and his father, Henry. On their way to visit his wife’s family for the holidays, Tom has promised his son that they’ll swing by Sutterville, a deserted ghost town in the middle of the desert.

On the way there, they pass a police car. The officer warns them that the town is completely tourist-free, due to all the vagrancy and strange occurrences following the massacre that happened in the town 40-years ago. The officers leave and the family decides to turn back, but not before they catch a glimpse of the strange, recently arrested vagrant in the back of the patrol car. Instead of turning around, the car’s accelerator gets ‘stuck’ and drives the family right into the middle of town, leaving them stranded until they can figure out what’s wrong with the vehicle and escape this strange little town.

FamilyReunion2Couldn’t spring for a bigger sign, eh movie?

Judging from that poster up there, one would not be remiss in thinking that Family Reunion was some sort of slasher (I did). But it’s not. It’s a supernatural horror film, which I’m sure will throw a lot of people off. But one should go into this expecting something less like The Omen and more like Children of the Corn.

Actually, it has a lot of similarities to the Stephen King based film. It’s set in a rural ghost town in the middle of nowhere, there are super creepy, youthful people with dark circles under their eyes wandering about, everyone the family encounters looks like they’ve just stepped off an amish farm, and all the towns problems stem from an evil cult. The only real difference here is that there’s nothing related to corn and the Andrews family is even more insufferable than the couple who had to fight the horrible “He Who Walks Behind The Rows” CGI monster.

FamilyReunion3Actually, I was planning on just National Lampooning us right off a cliff, but ghosts work too.

Yeah, the acting here is…not good, unfortunately. It’s not outright horrible at any point, but it doesn’t do the film any favors either.

The kids are, well, kids. They’re trying and they have their moments, but they still feel wooden most of the time. It also doesn’t help that they were designed to be just perpetually annoying and/or downright idiotic most of the time, and their actions/dialoge adamantly stick to that. I mean, the son is the only one who believes the town is literally inhabited by ghosts, yet he willingly follows some strange, mute girl into a deserted alley just because she silently beacons him in. In any other film, such seriously high-levels of brain damage would have resulted in insta-death. But unfortunately he hangs around to annoy the audience for another hour. The grandfather comes across as painfully apathetic, even when showing shock or concern. No small feat, considering he’s the only one who knows what’s going on and, by all accounts, is actually supposed to be very scared. The dad is pretty good most of the time, but then those emotional scenes happen and everything feels forced as all hell. And the mom….well, actually I think out of the main bunch she fares pretty well. As do most of the side characters and the main villain, even if the latter does tend to expel most of his energy on forced exposition/monologuing more than anything else.

FamilyReunion4I’ll just assume he chews so much scenery due to intense sleep deprivation.

Considering this is a film I had never heard of before, I didn’t expect the movie to look as good as it did. The black and white portions look particularly slick, even if some parts of the set look like they were aped from Manos The Hands of Fate, and there are several portions where the colors, light and shadow were very striking. The deserted buildings/desert setting is used to good effect, and while there are a couple of crap shots, there are also some nice, artful angles in there too. I fully admit, I went in expecting complete cheapness. But the production values here were surprisingly high. Well, except for that boom mic that slipped into that one shot for a few seconds. That should have been easily avoidable.

FamilyReunion5_2You were so close.
FamilyReunion6Here, have some better shots.

FamilyReunion7

The film’s biggest downfall, next to the acting, is really just the story itself. The plot is painfully predictable, as is the writing. The older sister spews several one-liners and snappy comebacks, and not only will you be able to predict what she’s about to say, but you’ll probably also be able to recite her lines better than she can. Grandpa keeps staring off into space, refusing to share his audio-only flashbacks. The family spends so much time milling about the town or just standing around not doing anything, that we end up having most of the films important plot points blatantly explained to us by various other characters instead of the film spending that time letting us learn it organically. And even after all those explanations, the movie still leaves a lot up in the air.

For instance, we’re never really told what happens to the grandfather at the end of the film. I suppose we’re to assume that he’s dead, but it’s never explicitly stated. It just feels like he just up and disappeared into the aether. Plus, the movie spends a lot of the early scenes hammering in the fact that the story is happening around Christmas. But after they get to Sutterville, that plot element sort of gets abandoned and, beyond a couple of visual elements and the highly synthesized holiday soundtrack, it doesn’t really come back to it until the final scene. Like, why was Christmas so important to the plot? Did it have to do with the cult blaspheming one of the holiest of Christian holidays? Is it supposed to be a metaphor related to families? Who knows. It’s a mystery.

FamilyReunion8As is the point of this scene.

So, Family Reunion ends up coming out okay. Not good, just okay. The acting is okay. The story is okay. The soundtrack is okay. The sets are okay…you get the point. The dialogue can be painful, you’ve seen the plot points over a hundred times before and the acting ranges from meh to cringe-worthy. But it’s got some nice atmosphere and looks surprisingly good. If you’re looking for another Christmas-themed horror movie to add to your pile, than this one could be a good addition, even if the whole Christmas aspect doesn’t factor in too highly. It is rather light on the gore, so maybe it would be a good choice for your own family reunion.

Family Reunion is currently available for streaming on Amazon Prime.

It is also available on DVD, with a very crappy cover.

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