The Open House

The Open House

“Have you thought about how weird open houses are?” teenaged Logan Wallace (Dylan Minnette) asks his mother Naomi (Piercey Dalton) about a third of the way through The Open House. “You give your keys to someone you hardly know, they stand in one room and welcome in a bunch of complete strangers, and those people just roam around the house. And the realtor doesn’t check the house when it’s done? They just turn the lights off and go?” All things considered, open-housing is one of the odder human rituals, but the Netflix thriller The Open House fails to make a case for it as the basis of a horror movie.

The titular open house is a McMansion in the mountains owned by Naomi’s sister. It’s on the market, but Naomi and Logan are staying there until they get back on their feet after the death of their husband/father and the loss of their rented home. Weird stuff starts to happen to the Wallaces as soon as they move in: the water heater develops a habit of getting turned off every time Naomi takes a shower, while Logan’s glasses and cellphone disappear and reappear seemingly at random. Disquieting, but easily explained away; it’s not like some psycho could have slipped in during an open house and is able to remain hidden from the Wallaces while fucking with them, right? Right?

I would think material like this would inherently be creepy, but writer/directors Suzanne Coote and Matt Angel work hard to drain each situation of all possible menace, usually by deploying the most obvious cliché possible at any given moment. Naomi and Logan driving at night along a winding road through a forest? How much you wanna bet they’ll nearly hit a mysterious figure who will just as mysteriously disappear when our heroes look back? Anything you can bet will happen, based on the standard cinematic grammar of thrillers and your own experience as a filmgoer, does. Which is a shame, considering how much work Coote and Angel put into constantly trying to fake out the audience (and it’s also a shame how little work they put into fig-leafing those fake outs).

You can’t help but feel bad for Minnette, who’s finally garnered notice as the star of Thirteen Reasons Why after spending most of a decade mining “sullen teenager” territory, and Dalton, an apparent relative newcomer. They’re saddled with factory-standard “overstressed single mom” and “withdrawn, introverted teen” characters completely incapable of seeing obvious things in front of their faces. Yet the one thing in this movie that works is the relationship between Naomi and Logan, and it’s almost entirely due to the actors. They deserve so, so much better than this.

Still, there’s one audience that might be able to eke some enjoyment out of The Open House: people who enjoy making fun of bad horror movies, especially screaming at the characters when they do stupid things. Everyone else should take the opportunity to catch up on Black Mirror or Everything Sucks or something.

Starring Dylan Minnette, Piercey Dalton, Patricia Bethune, Sharif Atkins, Aaron Abrams. Directed by Suzanne Coote and Matt Angel. 94 minutes.

Torment

Canada. Directed by Jordan Barker, 2013. Starring Katharine Isabelle, Robin Dunne, Peter DaCunha. 80 minutes.

It’s entirely possible that the horror genre suffers from a recent lack of animal-masked hooligans breaking into a house and terrorizing its residents. If so, Jordan Barker has arrived to end that drought with Torment. In this case, the tormented are the Morgans: dad Cory (Robin Dunne of Sanctuary), young son Liam (Peter DaCunha), and new stepmom Sarah (Katharine Isabelle of American Mary and Ginger Snaps). Liam’s still skeptical about this whole having-a-new-mom-thing, so they’re headed up to dad’s rural cabin for some bonding. When they arrive, they find that someone’s already broken in and trashed the joint. The local sheriff assures them that the culprits are probably just teenagers and there’s nothing to worry about, but is he right? (Spoiler alert: no.)

The similarities with other recent home-invasion thrillers isn’t skin deep. If you’re able to watch Torment without your thoughts turning to The Strangers and/or You’re Next on an almost constant basis, then congratulations, you’re a better person than I. Even when the film deviates from its illustrious predecessors, it does so in the most predictable of ways. There’s only one thing in the entire film that can be termed a “twist.” You should be able to spot it in the first five minutes, and it doesn’t really affect the viewer’s perspective on anything else in the film, so it feels as obligatory as it actually is.

The lack of novelty or freshness isn’t the only problem with the film. The Cory/Sarah/Liam dynamic is filled to overflowing with familiar postmodern family dysfunction cliché. As a character, Liam is very poorly written and barely seems like a young kid at all (and at one crucial juncture he turns out to be the most easily-brainwashed human being on the planet). The antagonists barely make an impression, having just enough motivation to distance the film from the aforementioned Strangers but not enough to feel even partially realized. The script is fairly flabby, with at least ten minutes of extraneous ending–and considering the film’s barely an hour-twenty to begin with, that really hurts.

Considering the new hole I’ve torn the script, I’d like to say the direction and the acting redeem the finished product. Unfortunately, that would be a lie, but both aspects are solid enough to keep Tormented from being a total waste. Isabelle is on fire here, fierce and driven, living up to the standard stepmother-as-surrogate-mother tropes even if she can’t quite transcend them. Dunne is almost as good. The always-awesome Stephen McHattie (PontypoolThe Tall Man) does great in his brief role as the sheriff–plus, having him and Isabelle in the same movie brings you close to some sort of low-budget Canadian horror trifecta. All you need is Peter Outerbridge or Emily Perkins to complete the set.

Barker’s direction isn’t particularly distinguished but it is, at the very least, effective. A couple of scenes could use some trimming (and the aforementioned fake ending needs to be lost entirely) but for the most part he keeps the tension and suspense consistent. We’re not talking about unbearable or edge-of-the-seat here, but enough to keep you from bailing in favor of Orange Is the New Black or whatever else is new on Netflix.

Torment has a lot going against it and not enough going for it to even up the score. Despite a couple of fine performances, it’s not good enough to be good or bad enough to be memorable. It’s merely mediocre, which in this case might be the worst option of the three.

Torment poster