Directed by: Matt Hodges
Starring: Martin Henderson, Linda Lane, Billy Milbeck, Ginny Wilmoth
On Christmas Day in 1929, a Stokes County, North Carolina farmer named Charlie Lawson murdered his family, laid the bodies out neatly, and then killed himself. The murders became an immediate sensation, and the house where they took place became a tourist attraction. The story was recounted in a popular 1930 song “The Ballad of Charlie Lawson.” Not surprisingly, the crime led to myths, local legends, conflicting stories, a book and now a film by Matt Hodges. It’s obvious from footage in the film that Hodges has long had more than a passing interest in the story. That’s probably both a good and a bad thing as concerns this interesting—and not entirely orthodox—documentary. Truth to tell, it’s hard to know whether the film can be strictly classed as a documentary, since it relies very heavily on dramatic recreations of not just the murders, but later occurrences and myths about the Lawson story. There are the usual talking heads to tell the various sides of the tale, but much of the film is more in the realm of a docu-drama. Surprisingly, the new footage works rather well and certainly adds a chill to an already gruesome story.
Granted, some of the recreations don’t quite make it, and Hodges wisely limits the “acting” of his principal players, occasionally reducing them to models posed in still photographs. Some may contend that this is “cheating,” that it could be confused with actual footage; while that may be true, it is undeniably effective. For an hour of its length, A Christmas Family Tragedy is a pretty compelling record of a local crime turned into a legend—even a ghost story. But Hodges views the film as more than that, placing the murders in the realm of domestic violence—an idea that doesn’t take center stage till late in the proceedings. I don’t doubt the sincerity of this, but I’m not sure I completely agree with it. Maybe I simply prefer it as a lurid horror story, but the domestic violence angle feels a little too easy for a crime of this magnitude (and is hardly relevant to the attendant ghost stories, in any case). Regardless, the film manages to be constantly watchable, and sometimes a good bit more.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke