Housesitters

Weirder than your average specimen of no-budget underground horror.

[Full disclosure: I know Housesitters director/co-writer Jason Coffman personally. Also, I contributed to the funding of Housesitters, which earned me an onscreen credit as a member of the “Tomorrow Romance Founders Club.” The point of all this is to assure you that if I genuinely hated Housesitters I’d be so nervous about the idea of writing a scathing review that I’d probably just not write anything at all.]

Do-it-yourself micro-budget horror films have a license to be weird, but even by this standard, Housesitters is an odd duck.

Sure, the plot—a pair of callow millennial slackers (played by co-writers Jamie Jirak and Annie Watkins) take what looks to be a sweet housesitting gig only to find themselves pawns in a ritual enacted by an evil magician—looks standard enough. But I didn’t mention the sitters’ obsession with gay porn. I didn’t mention the marijuana strains named after Italian crime thrillers from the ’70s. I didn’t mention the foreplay scene where a woman holds a smoke machine in front of her groin like it’s a strap-on. And I certainly didn’t mention Little Bastard, the green puppet monster that serves as the film’s antagonist.

Director and co-writer Jason Coffman has a peculiar sense of humor. I mean, here’s his idea of an effective commercial for his film:

Some of my favorite bits of Housesitters occur when he just lets that fevered brain of his loose. (Case in point: “Dancing About Barkitecture,” the lysergic machinima interlude that separates the film’s two halves.) The story is pretty flimsy, but it at least works on its own internal logic. The characters should be more annoying than they actually are, but Jirak, Watkins, and the rest of the cast give them an easy affability (or at least, I didn’t suffer from an intense desire to tase them in the face repeatedly). Moreover, Coffman is a genuine film geek and has some understanding of how cinema is supposed to work; as a result, this thing feels more genuinely cinematic than a lot of “I’ve got a camcorder and a few hundred bucks, let’s take a week off and make a movie” type productions do. And “Dancing About Barkitecture” is a work of genius.

That’s not to say that Housesitters is a great film. The pacing is occasionally wonky, Coffman displays his influences a bit too strongly, and many of the jokes just plain fall flat. (Or at least they fall flat to anyone not named Jason Coffman.) It probably doesn’t have much to offer anyone who isn’t already disposed to liking this sort of thing. But uneven though it is, Coffman delivers something you’re not going to find anywhere else—and isn’t that point of the no-budget horror underground?

Recommended for fans of Dustin Wayde Mills (who designed and built the Little Bastard puppet), Henrique Caouto, and such—you know who you are.

Starring Jamie Jirak, Annie Watkins, Peter Ash. Directed by Jason Coffman. 62 minutes.

Her Name Was Torment

Dustin Mills combines performance, photography and sound to create a palpable feeling of madness. Insanity wafts from the film like the smell of rot rising from a pile of trash.

United States. Directed by Dustin Mills, 2014. Starring Allison Egan, Brandon Salkil, Jackie McKeown. 50 minutes.

Over at Forced Viewing one of the things we enjoy is discovering ultra-indie, micro-budget, backyard horror filmmakers and championing their work. The Drudgeon raved about a guy named Kevin Strange who made movies with names like Dead Shit and Colonel Kill Motherfuckers; he’s moved on to short fiction since then. At marathons and festivals, I encountered a number of talented directors who chiefly made shorts: Danny DelPurgatorio, Jason Coffman, Ryan Oliver, Corey Norman. Jori was particularly proud of her discoveries, which included a pair of buddies from central Wisconsin doing business under the name Slasher Studios, and another guy out of Ohio named Dustin Mills. His titles were almost as weird as Strange’s: the first two movies of his Jori reviewed were Zombie A-Hole and The Puppet Monster Massacre. It was love at first sight.

Oddly enough it took me almost three years to finally get around to watching a Dustin Mills joint, and whoa, Nellie! Her Name Was Torment makes for one hell of a starting point. Its premise is deceptively simple: a police psychologist, voiced by Mills himself, interviews “Patient 394” (the “Torment” of the title), a young woman arrested for gruesomely torturing and murdering someone. Her answers are rarely coherent. Mills intersperses interview footage with flashbacks to Torment working on her victim (Brandon Salkil).

I expect a lot of people will dismiss Torment out of hand as a barebones exercise in torture-porn. To be sure, Mills sets out to disgust the audience; this is the sort of movie where a character can say “necrophiliacs are generally not monogamous” and mean it seriously. But to dismiss Torment as artless wallowing in gore and filth is to overlook the queer power the film has. Any jerk can point a cheap camcorder at “actors” pretending to torture, main and murder each other and produce a work of artless slime. Hell, The Bunny Game proves that pretending isn’t even necessary.

But Mills produces something genuinely artistic: he combines performance, photography and sound to create a palpable feeling of madness. Insanity wafts from the screen, almost an odor unto itself, like the smell of rot rising from a pile of spoiled meat. Reality distorts and the standard laws of the universe no longer apply. I’ve only seen one other film that can pull this trick off, and it’s the grandpappy of them all: the original ’74 Texas Chain Saw. Egan contributes heavily to this effect with the force of her performance, which is especially impressive considering the audience never sees her face or hears her undistorted voice. (Admittedly, the face is probably the one part of Egan we don’t see.)

There is, however, one flaw, which prevents me from rating Torment as high as I’d like, and it’s an unusual one for me: the effects. Normally duff practical effects don’t bother me, but this time I found myself bugged. In this case, I think they clash with the overall grittiness: for some reason I’ll accept not-quite-successful effects in glossier productions, but here they detracted from the film’s realism. (Mind you, that’s a highly comparative realism based on the work’s internal logic, but hey.) I also would trim a couple of scenes that I felt went on a bit too long, but that’s just me.

Even with that one flaw, Her Name Was Torment remains a remarkable accomplishment in horror filmmaking. Under normal circumstances I’d be somewhat distressed by the inevitable announcement of sequels (Torment 2 and Torment 3 are in development), but instead I can’t wait to see what else Dustin Mills has up his sleeve. He’s clearly a creative force to be reckoned with; ignore him at your peril.

Her Name Was Torment poster