I was intrigued by the title of the Facets Video disc, A Christmas Family Tragedy, a documentary on the infamous 1929 Lawson Family murders in Stokes County, North Carolina. I seem to remember reading about this horrific act in a true-crime compilation some years back, but the details had since escaped me. Watching director Matt Hodges' sincere but inept documentary, I didn't get much more out of it than what I remember reading, with Hodges' limitations as a filmmaker effectively sinking the project.
On Christmas Day, 1929, in rural Stokes County, North Carolina, tobacco farmer and respected member of the community Charlie Lawson committed a horrendous act of multiple murder, killing his wife and six of his children (the youngest was four months old) by either shooting or bludgeoning them to death, before turning the gun on himself. Needless to say, such a gruesome event caused a sensation with the public, with the murders immortalized in song, as well as spawning a popular (and profitable) tour of the murder site. And to this day, the people of Stokes County chew over the details of the murders, with some residents claiming that the ghosts of the murdered children still haunt various buildings around the murder site.
I don't know anything about Matt Hodges' previous (if any) experience directing documentaries, but his technical grasp of the genre's form is seriously lacking. Before we're ever fully introduced to the historical details of the crime, Hodges is discussing the commercialization of the event - which has little resonance with the viewer if they don't know the most fundamental facts of the case. Once Hodges gets down to discussing the actual murders, the documentary is frequently sidetracked by digressions that, although potentially interesting (such as the possible hauntings of the ghosts of the dead children), are treated in an equally vague, half-thought out manner.
Interviews with locals who were alive on that fateful day would seem to provide the most interest here, but a flat, dull "talking heads" approach (with some truly awful videography and lighting), negates any enthusiasm we may have had at the beginning of the film. Making matters worse, laughable re-creations of the murders are included (frequently edited into a jerky "still life" framework that is supposed to suggest vintage authenticity, I would assume), distracting the viewer even further away from the intent of the director. Re-creations are an extremely tricky technique in documentaries; even relatively big-budget documentaries seen on cable networks like The History Channel and The Discovery Channel frequently flub them. Director Hodges would have done well to leave those out of the final cut.
But then, there probably wouldn't have been much left to A Christmas Family Tragedy if they were cut out. The director is unable to present any solid new evidence (either through his investigative efforts or through a logical sifting through of all of the gathered evidence) about the crime, and is therefore unable to give us even a hint as to what he thinks really happened back in 1929. Indeed, the director, who acts as the narrator of the documentary as well, flatly states that it doesn't matter exactly how the murders went down; only that the end results were terrible and that no man has a right to commit such an act. That's about as deep as A Christmas Family Tragedy gets. Multiple scenarios are thrown out for Lawson's actions (the director suggests either financial worries, stress from diminished authority in the Lawson family, a blow to Charlie Lawson's head from a mattock, fear of dying and leaving his family to fend for themselves, child abuse or domestic violence), but no conclusions are drawn, nor are any other possible motives - or even killers - examined too thoroughly.
When the director has to include his own so-called "paranormal" experiences in the murder cabin when he was a boy, I pretty much wrote off A Christmas Family Tragedy as any serious examination of the murders (the director claims to have nightmares about this incident, five nights a week, for 27 years? Time to talk to somebody about that). Whether you believe in ghosts or not is not my point; if the director can't maintain a coherent, logical examination of the actual murders, nor offer any point of view concerning the crime, why pad out the film with lame "spook show" tales of so-called "hauntings," made worse by silly sound effects and tired, clichéd visuals? By the end of A Christmas Family Tragedy, the documentary turns into an examination of modern-day domestic violence - which is an admirable subject to explore, but what is it doing in this documentary? If the director can't look at the Lawson Family murders in a clean, methodical way, why the digression into a totally new subject that needs its own documentary? Such detours are indicative of the unfocused, scattershot approach in A Christmas Family Tragedy.
The fullscreen, 1.33:1 video image for A Christmas Family Tragedy is only fair, with plenty of video noise during the shaky, dark interview segments.
The English stereo soundtrack is actually quite good, with authentic bluegrass music offering the only respite from the tentative, diffused documentary.
There are quite a few extras included on the A Christmas Family Tragedy disc, but I'm not sure any of them add an ounce of improvement to the viewing experience. Ghost Hunt at Squire Inn runs an interminable 18:33, offering precious little information on the Lawson murders. Charlie's Volunteer looks at the gun used in the murders. It runs 4:58. Legend Hunt at Mt. Airy Flea Market has interviews with people at a flea market, discussing the crime (totally useless). It runs 7:57. A Lawson Family Sermon, featuring the Rev. Oakley Manring, is a taped sermon concerning the tragedy (it's funny how everybody keeps talking about the tragedy - and they keep saying: let this tragedy lie in peace). It runs 9:32. A Prayer for Gale James runs 17:43, featuring an extended interview with the daughter of Marie Lawson's boyfriend. And DV Then and Now looks at the issue of domestic violence in Stokes County. It runs 14:26.
A potentially fascinating subject - the true-life murders of a rural farming family and the apparent suicide of the father/killer - is unfortunately squandered in this inept, dull documentary. Painfully clumsy and incompetent re-creations vie with boring "talking heads" interviews to create a rather hopeless "home movie" doc. Too bad a real documentarian didn't get a crack at this story. You can safely skip A Christmas Family Tragedy.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published film and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.