I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House

Ruth Wilson stars in I AM THE PRETTY THING THAT LIVES IN THE HOUSE

Canada/United States. Directed by Oz Perkins, 2016. Starring Ruth Wilson, Bob Balaban, Lucy Boynton, Paula Prentiss. 87 minutes.

If you’re here, reading this, I reckon you’ve probably heard of Shirley Jackson. If you haven’t, long story short: writer from the 1940s and ’50s, chiefly of contemporary gothic stories and novels. In 1959 she published The Haunting of Hill House, which established the modern-day version of the Bad Place trope: it might not necessarily be haunted, not per se, but it definitely gets into your head and twists your thoughts around until you don’t know whether you’re coming or going. Stephen King dedicated his novel Firestarter to her memory, observing that she “never needed to raise her voice.” Shirley Jackson didn’t do jump-scares. What she did was get under your skin, build a nest, and lay eggs.

I Am the Pretty Thing that Lives in the House (whose title itself suggests another Jackson work, We Have Always Lived in the Castle) has the Hill House-iest haunted house storyline since, if not the actual Hill House, at least since The Shining. 28-year-old hospice nurse Lily arrives at the house at the end of Teacup Road to care for the aging and senile Iris Blum. Iris, once a successful horror writer, seems to think that Lily is actually Polly, the subject of her novel The Lady in the Walls. Or maybe it’s not really a novel. The house at the end of Teacup Road hides many secrets, the most important of which is who Polly really is.

As I watched Pretty Thing, I couldn’t go five minutes without thinking about Steve King’s dedication. Writer/director Osgood “Oz” Perkins paces the film slowly and deliberately, laying on the atmosphere with a trowel. He deploys very few shocks of any kind, and no jump-scares. He complements the proceedings with Julie Kirkwood’s lyrical cinematography and an unsettling ambient score provided by his brother Elvis. Skin, nest, eggs. If Jackson never raised her voice, Perkins spends the film whispering.

…or maybe it’s actually mumbling. I’m not going to lie to you, I think most people are going to hate it. I said before that Perkins paces the film slow; it might be more accurate to say that what little plot there is could fit in a half-hour episode of The Twilight Zone—the ’60s version—with little to no abridgment. Ruth Wilson, playing Lily, spends much of the film slowly wandering from room to room, occasionally pausing to deliver a poetic soliloquy: “It has always been that wearing white reassures the sick that I can never be touched, even as darkness folds in on them from every side, closing like a claw…” Melodramatic, yes, but Wilson makes it work. Meanwhile, it takes Lucy Boynton (as Polly) multiple flashbacks just to complete the action of turning her head, and Paula Prentiss (Iris Blum) works on perfecting her vacant stare. I’d say she nails it.

Now, I will gleefully admit I love stuff like this: I get everything I like about Kubrick and Tarkovsky (lovely wide shots, slow pacing, music that makes my stomach churn) in just half the time. It’s a win-win! Other viewers, who prefer movies in which things actually happen are likely to reach the end credits wondering what all the fuss is about. That is, if they don’t suddenly discover they fell asleep halfway through the second act.

And that’s fine: I can’t blame anyone for being bored by this movie; it’s about slow people doing slow things very slowly, until they stop doing them. But I did find it pretty and poetic, almost like watching a morbid, gothic dance. I Am the Pretty Thing that Lives in the House isn’t going to be something I want to watch every day, but I’m glad it exists.

Morgana O'Reilly stars in HOUSEBOUND.

Housebound

New Zealand. Directed by Gerard Johnstone, 2014. Starring Morgana O’Reilly, Rima Ti Wiata, Glen-Paul Waru, Ross Harper, Cameron Rhodes, Ryan Lampp. 107 minutes.

Something about New Zealand seems particularly conducive to horror-comedy, from the early works of Peter Jackson (Bad TasteDead Alive) to the mid-2000s cult classic Black Sheep (not the Chris Farley one, obviously) and this year’s What We Do in the Shadows. Add to that list Housebound, a satirical look at haunted-house tropes that’s garnered a fair amount of attention since making its way to the States last October.

Morgana O’Reilly stars as Kylie, a petty criminal who finds herself sentenced to house arrest in her childhood home under the care of her estranged mum Miriam (Rimi Ti Wiata) and stepdad Graeme (Ross Harper). Long-buried memories find themselves dragged back up to the surface when Kylie discovers Miriam has always regarded the house as being haunted–a prospect that excites Amos (Glen-Paul Waru), a security guard assigned to Kyle who also fancies himself a paranormal investigator. Their investigations turn up a series of revelations, each wilder than the last, about the house’s history–particularly a murder that occurred in Kylie’s bedroom, not long before she and her family moved in.

First-time writer/director Gerard Johnstone puts his focus squarely on the characters and their eccentricities: brooding Kylie, well-meaning if somewhat clueless and overbearing Miriam, quiet Graeme, overeager supernatural sleuth Amos, not to mention a gallery of supporting characters including a creepy neighbor and an ineffectual social worker (played, respectively, by Mick Innes and Cameron Rhodes). It’s an eclectic but endearing assembly of comedic personalities, matched by a skilled cast.

Two performers deserve particular attention. O’Reilly’s performance is, in many ways, the key to Housebound. Kylie’s petulant childishness should make her hard to sympathize with, even when she’s funny, and while Johnstone develops her into the sort of protagonist people should think about when they hear the phrase “strong female protagonist” O’Reilly puts us on her side in short order, and she’s easy to like even when she’s eating all the meatloaf, hogging the television, or blowing up an ATM.

Ryan Lampp is the other standout performer. He comes into the story about halfway through the film and I don’t want to spoil his character too much, but his physical performance is one of the delights of the latter phases of the film and he’s a joy to watch whenever he’s on-screen.

The script’s emphasis on character, dialog, and individual set pieces unfortunately comes at the expense of plot: after a strong start, the story peters out somewhat going into the second act, as Kylie’s house arrest and electronic ankle bracelet become more of a narrative burden. Johnstone proves a bit reluctant to follow through with the logical consequences of the characters’ actions. For example, without giving too much away, Kylie does something that should have drastic repercussions for a person in her situation but nothing much seems to happen to her as a result of it. I’m willing to cut the film, which is at its heart an absurdist comedy, some slack in this department, but since Kylie’s criminal history and incarceration are such a central part of the film’s premise I feel it’s an undeniable flaw.

While Housebound does have a few flaws, they don’t keep the film from being an enjoyable, witty romp. For the most part, this is how you do horror-comedy right.

HOUSEBOUND poster

A scene from WE ARE STILL HERE.

We Are Still Here

United States. Directed by Ted Geoghegan, 2015. Starring Barbara Crampton, Andrew Sensenig, Larry Fessenden, Lisa Marie, Monte Markham. 84 minutes.

I’ve always had a complex relationship with Lucio Fulci’s films. In theory, I should consider his œvure some of the best horror films ever made, featuring as they do beautiful imagery, existential themes, and strikingly-designed, well-executed gore sequences guaranteed to make the stomach churn. In practice, however, his screenplays tend to lack coherency, which irritates me because I’m mostly a story person. For me, the archetypal example of this is 1981’s House by the Cemetery, in which several minor characters insist the protagonist has a daughter he denies exists (and whose subplot disappears early in the film with no explanation), amongst other bizarre story elements and plot developments.

That being said, let’s turn our eye to Ted Geoghegan’s We Are Still Here. Barbara Crampton and Andrew Sensenig star as Anne and Paul Sacchetti, who move into a rambling old house in the wake of the tragic death of their son Bobby. Almost immediately, Anne becomes convinced that Bobby’s spiritual presence has joined them in the new house; not too long after, they learn the nasty history of the house and its first residents, the Dagmar family. They invite their spiritualist friends Jacob and May McCabe to help them sort out the strange phenomena.

Now, if you’ve seen The House by the Cemetery, you’ll understand why I brought it up. For the uninitiated, the most obvious similarity comes with the character names, many of which Geoghegan borrowed from Cemetery’s characters, cast, and crew. The references don’t stop there: both We Are Still Here and Cemetery’s predecessor The Beyond feature a tradesman named Joe who suffers a traumatic experience in a basement. Indeed, Geoghegan’s film shares many thematic elements that link Fulci’s loose “Gates of Hell Trilogy” (which includes City of the Living Dead along with The Beyond and Cemetery).

Now, I’ve spent so much time pointing out the ways in which We Are Still Here obviously cribs from Fulci’s work that I’d forgive you for thinking I was going to turn in an unfavorable review. On the contrary, the film encapsulates the things I like about Fulci’s films while improving on (what I perceive as being) their shortcomings in every way.

The plot, by and large, makes sense, and when it doesn’t, it’s not impossible to see an internal logic at play. The characters are genuine characters, and not thinly-drawn effigies who only exist in the plot to suffer from disgustingly gory demises. The performances are very strong for the most part, particularly Crampton, Sensenig, and a scene-stealing Monte Markham as a creepy local old-timer who clearly knows a lot more about what’s going on than he’s saying. I do have to admit that Larry Fessenden and Lisa Marie go a bit over the top as Jacob and May, but, hey, it helps give a bit of variance to an otherwise solidly somber-toned film so it’s not unforgivable.

The cherry on top is Geoghegan’s superb direction, understated and lyrical for much of the running time, then suddenly shifting into overdrive for the film’s blood-soaked climax, an effects-driven set-piece defined by some sickeningly memorable death scenes and a lot of icky, gooey gore.

Best of all, We Are Still Here is that rarest treat of the horror pastiche-slash-homage: the one that stands entirely on its own and doesn’t require the audience to know jack-all about the source material to enjoy it. Sure, it helps to be familiar with Fulci’s work to get the references and in-jokes, but it’s not necessary. This excellent film has plenty to delight fans of both atmospheric and gruesome horror regardless.

WE ARE STILL HERE poster

A scene from POLTERGEIST.

Retro Review: Poltergeist

United States. Directed by Tobe Hooper, 1982. Starring Craig T. Nelson, JoBeth Williams, Dominique Dunne, Oliver Robins, Heather O’Rourke, Zelda Rubenstein. 114 minutes.

Premise: “They’re here.” Steve and Diane Freelings are a couple who seem to have it all: affluence, a beautiful house in the suburbs, and three wonderful kids. But their perfect life turns upside-down as a strange series of incidents lead them to believe their house is haunted, and the stakes are raised when spiritual forces abduct their youngest daughter, Carol Anne.

Something I’ve mentioned several times in the past is that one of the formative pop-culture experiences of my childhood was watching Poltergeist with my parents when it was first released on VHS; I would have been 8 or 9 at the time. Except for the Twilight Zone episode “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” no work of horror has affected me so profoundly, and revisiting it again after almost thirty years, I found it to retain a great deal of effectiveness.

I believe the key to the film’s longevity is its accessibility. Very few people actually grew up in places like Cuesta Verde or belonged to families as perfect as the Freelings, but the fictional environment never seems less than real. Through a combination of excellent writing, direction and acting, the film creates an idealized yet utterly credible depiction of early ’80s suburban life. We don’t see much of the family’s life away from each other–Steve interacts with his boss in a couple of scenes, and the dialog provides a few tantalizing details such as oldest daughter Dana’s sly remark about remembering the Holiday Inn–but we get enough details to fill in the blanks. I don’t feel the script is perfect–in particular, the final act goes a bit too over-the-top–but overall, it’s pretty strong.

The primary cast–Craig T. Nelson as Steve, JoBeth Williams as Diane, the late Dominique Dunne as Dana, Oliver Robins as son Robbie, and Heather O’Rourke as Carol Anne–have perfect chemistry with each other, bringing poignancy to scenes that, as written, run dangerously close to cornball. The supporting performances are also excellent, with Zelda Rubenstein putting in a legendary performance as Tangina Barrons, the eccentric medium. It’s a bit sad that her career took a sharp turn into self-parody almost immediately after Poltergeist’s release, as here she practically radiates authority, and commands every scene she’s in without straying too far into over-acting.

There’s been some debate over the years who was really in control of Poltergeist: Spielberg or director Tobe Hooper. The production features stylistic touches from both filmmakers (watch Poltergeist as part of a triple-feature with Close Encounters of the Third Kind and The Funhouse and see what strikes you), but I ultimately have to give advantage to Hooper on this one for the gore effects (I’m still surprised the face-ripping scene didn’t garner the movie an “R”), some of the creepier compositions (such as the strobe lighting effect when Carol Anne watches static on the TV), and the handling of the actors. Compare O’Rourke’s performance to that of Drew Barrymore in E.T.–see what I mean? The effects have aged very well–only the “face-ripping” scene (I’d be interested to discover what favors Spielberg rendered to the MPAA in exchange for a PG rating) looks a bit dated by modern standards.

There’s a school of thought that states that aiming a horror movie for any rating lower than R isn’t worth doing. I’ve probably stated my disagreement with this philosophy in the past. Let’s be perfectly honest with ourselves: most of us are here because of things we were exposed to (or exposed ourselves to) before we became adolescents. There’s no better time than childhood for the rudimentary principles of horror to take root in the mind. While there are definitely horror concepts that shouldn’t be pitched as PG-13 (movies in the Alien series, for example), I’d argue that there’s a definite need for a particular strain of horror that’s aimed at kids, and Poltergeist proves that it can be done effectively, without pulling punches or watering things down.

Review originally written October 2011.

POLTERGEIST poster

A scene from THE HOUSE AT THE END OF TIME.

The House at the End of Time

Venezuela. Directed by Alejandro Hidalgo, 2013. Starring Ruddy Rodríguez, Gonzalo Cubero, Rosmel Bustamante. 100 minutes. In Spanish, with English subtitles.

No relation to the Restaurant at the End of the Universe, The House at the End of Time is a rambling, decaying manor the struggling Fernandez family bought on the cheap. In 1981, Juan Jose Fernandez was stabbed to death, his son Leopoldo disappeared mysteriously, and family matriarch Dulce was convicted of murdering them both–although she claimed her innocence, blaming the house for both crimes. Thirty years later, the government releases her to live in the mysterious estate under house arrest. That’s when the weirdness starts happening again…

Many sources classify The House at the End of Time as a horror movie but a more accurate description would be supernatural thriller. The production design is suitably creepy and there are a few scary moments and scenes of violence, but overall, the mood is not that of horror but of mystery.

Writer/director Alejandro Hidalgo doesn’t so much construct a story as a puzzle. Dulce (with the help of a local priest she befriends) must solve the House using the plot beats as pieces, and everything fits together just so. Unfortunately, House falls prey to a common symptom of “puzzle movies”: the plot feels overly mechanical instead of developing organically, like something deliberately constructed for the characters’ benefit. It doesn’t damage the film’s overall effect, but it did cause me to keep a certain amount of emotional distance from the film.

Hidalgo proves a fine director with a strong command of atmosphere and pace, although some of the score cues work to cross purposes. For example, the light-hearted music that accompanies the baseball sequences made me wonder if I’d somehow managed to come across a Spanish-language remake of The Sandlot.

However, the core strength of the film is Hidalgo’s grasp of family dynamics and human nature. He portrays the disintegrating relationship between Dulce and Juan Jose with sensitivity and attention to the situation’s complexity; even when they aren’t particularly pleasant to each other (which is often), the audience has a good grasp of how they got to where they are. That being said, the final shift between the two seems a bit sudden; I feel Hidalgo should have started building towards it earlier, more gradually and (honestly) a bit more obviously.

Hidalgo develops the relationship between the Fernandez children, Leopoldo and Rodrigo, similarly well: two brothers who don’t always get along and give each other a lot of guff but ultimately love each other very much. However, Hidalgo does over-play his hand a bit by focusing too much on Leo in the opening phases, making for some obvious foreshadowing. Strong performances complement the characterization all around, with child actors Rosmel Bustamante (as Leopoldo) and Héctor Mercado (as Rodrigo) being the standouts.

The House at the End of Time has some flaws, but is overall an enjoyable, engaging mystery-thriller with a satisfyingly honest emotional center.

The House at the End of Time

Lee Bane stars in LAST HOUSE ON CEMETERY LANE.

The Last House on Cemetery Lane

United Kingdom. Directed by Andrew Jones, 2015. Starring Lee Bane, Georgina Blackledge, Tessa Wood. 82 minutes.

Judging from his IMDB page, Andrew Jones, the writer/director of The Last House on Cemetery Lane, seems to be something of a one-man British version of the Asylum: his CV includes titles such as Valley of the WitchThe Amityville Asylum and the upcoming Poltergeist Activity. I’m not sure that’s actually true, but it’s as good a theory as any to explain Cemetery Lane’s myriad flaws, from its generic title to its overly-familiar premise.

Lee Bane stars as John Davies, a screenwriter who books eight weeks at a rambling country manor with the hopes of kicking his writer’s block and producing a better script than the one he’s in. The one catch is that, according to the landlady, the house’s top floor is occupied by an elderly blind woman who never leaves her rooms and never talks to anyone (and is not named the Dowager Countess McGuffin, much to my disappointment). Seeing as John specializes in writing horror films, you’d think he’d realize he’s just walked into a cross between Burnt Offerings and The Sentinel, right? Wrong. Instead he gets all surprised when the phonograph starts blaring old-timey music at two in the morning and intense nightmares plague his fitful sleep. Luckily he’s got Cas (Georgina Blackledge), the pretty neighbor, to help him get to the bottom of things.

There’s very little to say in support of this particular exercise. Hopefully I’ve already given you a good idea of how same-shit-different-day the story is. If Jones’s script showed any signs of self-awareness (and it’s pretty damn rare to find a horror story about writers that isn’t self-aware to some extent) I could write the lack of originality off as an unsuccessful attempt at meta, but no, it looks like we’re supposed to take this all at face value. About ten minutes into the film, Jones offers up a montage set to a turgid mid-tempo song that sounds like Jones instructed the composer to make it sound like Jonathan Coulson’s “Creepy Doll,” except without the merest hint of humor.

Jones throws every incongruous freaky thing he can think of into the film, including impromptu dentistry and the word MURDER written on a mirror in blood; I could forgive him for not explaining all these things, but he doesn’t even bother making them all feel like they belong in the same movie. The characterization is just as bad, with John and Cassie falling in love with each other in a matter of days despite neither of them having much in the way of personality and being saddled with the most stilted dialog imaginable. Once the mystery starts to unravel–something that happens surprisingly late in the game–it becomes shockingly obvious what’s actually going on, thanks to Ebert’s inevitable Law of Conservation of Characters. Jones then brings in some sudden plot elements that have never been alluded to and are never followed up on, and then everything grinds to a halt, leaving the viewer free to get on with his life.

Of the cast, Bane is the only one who impresses, largely because he’s the only one who has anything to do and is good at doing it. Blackledge tries gamely, but there’s simply not enough to Cas to make a performance out of, although she does have some rudimentary chemistry with Bane. The only two other important performances come from Tessa Wood and Vivien Bridson, neither of whom give the impression they’re interested in anything more than a paycheck and another entry on their resumés.

Long story short, The Last House on Cemetery Lane is almost entirely lacking in entertainment value. It’s a complete waste of time and is not worth watching even to laugh at. My advice: find something else to watch.

Last House on Cemetery Lane

The Hanover House

The Hanover House

United States. Directed by Corey Norman, 2014. Starring Brian Chamberlain, Casey Turner, Anne Bobby. 73 minutes. 7/10

Haunted houses, family secrets and personal demons go together like peanut butter and jelly, and Maine filmmaker Corey Norman (who’s already impressed me with two short films, The Barn and Natal, serves up a satisfying portion of all three in his feature début, The Hanover House.

The tale of young couple Robert and Shannon Foster, a young married couple who find themselves in a tragic, uncomfortable situation during an uncomfortable ride home from Robert’s estranged father’s funeral, The Hanover House places its emphasis on atmosphere over flashy effects sequences. Largely filmed in and around a purportedly real haunted house in western Maine, Norman squeezes out every last drop of creepy dread his locations have to offer.

The script covers the familiar tropes of haunted-house stories, with a couple of highly memorable creep-out sequences (Robert taking a phone call from his deceased father is a highlight) and the occasional surprise revelation. There’s a strong degree of realism to the character dynamics: as familiar as dysfunctional families are in fictional film worlds, it’s actually fairly rare for a movie to get one exactly right. The Hanover House nails it right on the head, thanks not only to the script but to fine performances from leads Brian Chamberlain and Casey Turner, along with supporting turns from Nightbreed’s Anne Bobby (as Robert’s mother) and David Shaffer (as the less-than-trustworthy Uncle Fred).

The Hanover House looks and feels like a local, low-budget production and a few of the familiar flaws are present. The most notable one, at least to me, is what I’ve come to term “ultra-indie acting.” As good as most of the performances are, the actors tend to wait a bit too long to respond to a speaker during a conversation, as if they’re trying a bit too hard not to step on their castmates’ lines. This tends to give the line-readings a bit of a stilted, unnatural feel (and when combined with rapid cuts between the speaking characters, makes the scene feel as if it Norman cobbled together from different takes in post, even though he most likely didn’t).

The flashback sequences also aren’t as successful as they could be: Norman tries too hard to avoid showing Robert’s father’s face (the voice of the character’s younger version is almost certainly provided by Chamerlain, and I suspect he stood in for the character as well), and the actor playing the teenaged Robert puts in one of the film’s weaker performances. (I also got the feeling that the Norman intended the part for a younger actor.)

Overall, The Hanover House is a solid, entertaining haunted-house exercise with a couple of great scenes. It will make its official début at the Saco Drive-In in Saco, Maine, on May 9, and will hopefully start making the festival rounds shortly thereafter. Worth a watch if it comes your way.

Hanover House poster